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Fear, Loathing and the U.N. Human Rights Council

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There has been much over-heated commentary about the Obama administration’s decision that the United States will seek election to the United Nations Human Rights Council at the forthcoming elections in May 2009.  One ubiquitous posting has characterized the decision as a “surrender of American values unlike any other,” and characterized the Council as a “lethal weapon for the defeat of human rights.”

Setting aside the hyperbole, it is hard to see where the substance of these objections lay.  It is generally agreed by all but the most shameless apologists for unreconstructed human rights violators that the performance of the Human Rights Council to date has been disappointing, to put it mildly.

It does not follow from that not particularly original observation that a U.S. policy of boycotting the Council and disparaging all its works has been a success.  Indeed the opposite would appear to be the case.  The absence of strong U.S. leadership on human rights issues within the Council is arguably one reason why states hostile to human rights have been able to manipulate its activities to suit their purposes with so little resistance.

The alternative implicitly suggested by the critics of U.S. membership in the Council is that Council membership should be reserved only for those states committed to the protection of human rights.  This sounds like a fine idea until one thinks about it.  The United States proposed such a system when the Council was being set up in 2006 and it lost the vote 170 to 4.  Such a resounding loss did not give the Bush administration pause.  With U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in the lead, it took to asserting that it was right and everyone else was wrong.

Such brilliant diplomacy did little to assist the development of the fragile new Human Rights Council, but it did much to confirm the worst suspicions of people in many parts of the world about the domineering, unilateralist ways of the United States government.

If the United States had won the argument in 2006 and succeeded in establishing a Council with membership reserved only for the virtuous, it might have been ironic to see the United States deemed unable to meet the standards it had championed, as international concern increased about the U.S. record of torture and secret detention without charge or trial.  More importantly, the criteria for eligibility would have become a recipe for contention that would have diverted the Council from its core purpose of global human rights promotion in perpetuity.

Moreover, giving up the principle that human rights promotion is a common obligation agreed to by all would have been to forfeit the major strength of the global human rights system that has developed over the past 60 years – its universality.  Of course, many governments only pay lip service to human rights, and some do so in a transparently hypocritical manner.  Nonetheless, states meet and discuss human rights within an agreed universal framework bolstered by a developing superstructure of binding international human rights law.  Rights violating states would find it much easier to disregard the views of a group of self-appointed (for that is how they would be portrayed) rights respecting states than the considered opinions of the community of nations as a whole.

The alternative – not having a venue where the world can continue to advance its common understanding of the basic requirements of human dignity would be much worse.

By being a member of the Council, the United States will have the opportunity to work from within to seek to improve the Council’s performance.  There will be a comprehensive review of the Council in 2011.  As a member, rather than as a hostile critic, the United States will be in a much stronger position to win support from countries around the world for necessary reforms.

There has been no sustained effort to date by the United States government to build a coalition within the Council that would take consistent principled stands on human rights issues.  There is nothing intrinsically hostile to human rights about many of the members of the Council, most of them are rated as free or democratic in global surveys, and indeed several of the governments that have taken positions viewed as hostile to human rights are among the United States’ closest allies, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  The United States is in a unique position to seek to persuade its allies to behave more constructively on international human rights issues.

The final argument is surely the strongest refutation of the predictions of doom made by opponents of U.S. membership.  If the United States makes a good faith effort to improve the Council’s performance over the next several years and is unable to make any progress, then it will be in a strong position to lead an international effort to create a different, better institution.  However, if it gives up on the Council without even trying then many will doubt the commitment of the United States to international efforts to promote and protect human rights. That really would be a step on the way to the defeat of human rights.