05/14/2007 11:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Avoiding Groundhog Day on the UN Human Rights Council

High on the list of things that have given the UN a bad name over the years is the spectacle of countries with abysmal human rights records issuing pious pronouncements on the subject from the comfort of international meeting halls. This Alice-in-Wonderland phenomenon leads the world body's critics to conclude that a forum as diverse and universal as the UN is incapable of distinguishing right from wrong and should not be entrusted with either money or authority.

The UN's Commission on Human Rights stood for years as the most flagrant example of the foxes guarding the human rights henhouse. A year ago, the UN took an important but incomplete step toward correcting that by disbanding the feckless Commission and replacing it with the Human Rights Council, a body aimed to correct the worst of the Commission's failings, if not restore the UN's position as a global force for human rights. Unfortunately, with its second-ever elections coming up this week, the Council has thus far been a big disappointment. When the UN membership goes to the polls on Wednesday, however, they will have a chance to signal - by keeping Belarus off the Council - that the new body is capable of more than just business as usual.

One of the key, and most hotly contested, elements distinguishing the Council from its disesteemed predecessor was to have been its composition. Whereas the Commission was traditionally dominated by some of the world's worst human rights offenders (think Zimbabwe, Sudan, Cuba, Libya, etc.), the Council was supposed to be different. The U.S., EU, the UN Secretary General and others wanted to bar nations with egregious human rights records from participating in the Council. The idea was to prevent these states from shielding themselves from the Council's scrutiny, or simply trying turn the spotlight elsewhere.

The membership criteria were hotly debated and, in the end, heavily watered down. Part of the problem, in fairness, was that none of the proposed fixed formulas for membership - ratification of particular treaties or cooperation with human rights investigations - swept in the right countries while excluding the wrong ones. Rather than, for example, banning nations under UN Security Council sanctions, the resolution that created the Human Rights Council simply said that membership "shall take into account candidates' contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights." A proposed requirement that membership be by election of two-thirds of the UN membership - the idea being that violators would fail to muster broad enough support - was likewise scrapped in favor of a simple majority vote.

On the basis of these and other shortcomings in the drive to prevent the Council from going the way of the Commission, the US opted not to stand for membership when the Council was formed in 2006, and says it won't run again this year. But some others still hold out the hope that the Council can be salvaged. A look at this week's election hints at both the promise and the problems.

First off, its barely an election at all. Of the UN's five regional blocs, three have proffered so-called "clean slates." This means that a common slate of candidates has been agreed via horsetrading in the region, such that the rest of the UN membership has little choice but to ratify neighborhood's picks. In a late-breaking exception, however, Bosnia announced on Friday that it would contest Slovenia and Belarus for the two available Eastern European seats, opening up the potential that Belarus - the worst human rights offender in the running - will in fact be kept off the Council. Bosnia did so after human rights NGOs urged it to step forward and try to block Belarus' pernicious bid. The other region with a contested slate is the Western Europe and Other Group where Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands are competing for two available seats.

The history of clean slates at the UN is inauspicious. Traditionally the African Group, for example, has apportioned its seats on UN bodies by a strict geographic rotation. Even when the results are perverse - Sudan becoming the region's candidate for a UN Security Council seat, for example - solidarity and protocol within the Group have often prevailed over considerations of what's best for the UN or those who depend on it. Seeing this flawed methodology extended to the Human Rights Council does not bode well.

A second problem is the nominees themselves. Belarus had the audacity to step forward despite one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. The Human Rights Council has appointed a monitor for Belarus, but the government has refused for more than 2 years to even allow him entry into the country. The monitor described theirs as "absolute refusal to cooperate" and reported that the country is moving rapidly toward dictatorship.

Non-governmental organizations have appraised the full slate of 14 candidates. Many NGOs oppose Belarus and Egypt and find others - e.g. Angola - wanting.

Technically speaking, the UN General Assembly can and should vote down candidates that it judges to fall short of the standards expected for participation in the Council. It takes the affirmative vote of fully half the GA members for a nominee to be seated. But in practice, overturning the regional group's own choices happens rarely, and only when influential UN members are willing to expend significant political capital in typically bruising election fights (remember Venezuela v. Guatemala).

The obvious and essential place for the UN membership to take a stand in favor of the Council being a genuine improvement over the Commission is by voting down Belarus. A vote against Belarus is a vote for the credibility of the Council.