While both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have their sights set on November 6, there is another important election around the corner. On November 12, the United States will compete to retain its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
There is no guarantee the United States will win a second term, with Germany, Sweden, Ireland, and Greece also competing for a bloc of just three seats. But retaining a seat would serve important U.S. interests, and as leading human rights groups have recommended, the next president should maintain a commitment to U.S. leadership at the Human Rights Council -- and in the United Nations as a whole.
While the United Nations, like other multilateral institutions, is not perfect, it has the power to enhance the legitimacy and impact of collective actions by the United States and its partners. Furthermore, the institution functions more effectively when the United States is a fully engaged member. The history of the Human Rights Council provides an excellent example of how the United States can be a positive force for change within the United Nations.
By 2005, the old U.N. Commission on Human Rights had lost all credibility. With its membership comprising gross human rights violators such as Sudan, which gained a seat unopposed in 2004 at the height of the genocide in Darfur, the commission was drifting far from its intended purpose. In June 2005, a task force headed by George Mitchell and Newt Gingrich recommended that the commission be abolished and replaced with a new Human Rights Council featuring more stringent membership criteria.
Thanks to U.S. pressure, many of the management-related reforms of the Gingrich-Mitchell Report were implemented, leading to the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006. However, the United States refused to join the new council at the outset, and some of the old problems recurred. For example, the first few sessions were dedicated to criticizing Israel and endorsing resolutions that prohibited blasphemy. And aside from the most egregious cases, there were few serious efforts to call attention to human rights violations in other locations.
It was not until September 2009 -- when, with strong support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States finally joined the council -- that serious changes occurred. Over the last three years, the council has launched investigations into abuses in Libya, Syria, Côte d'Ivoire, Belarus, Honduras, Guinea, and Eritrea. The United States has also ensured that egregious human rights violators, such as Libya and Sudan, have been kept off the council. U.S. participation was instrumental in the creation of a special rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly; in building support for a South African initiative to adopt the first resolution on the protection of LGBT rights; and in the defeat of the annual "defamation of religions" resolution, an attempt by Islamic states to create an international norm criminalizing blasphemy.
But the U.N. Human Rights Council is just one piece of a much larger institution. With more than 120,000 U.N. peacekeepers on 15 active missions, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations oversees the second-largest military deployment in the world. More than 90 million people in 70 countries are fed through the World Food Program each year. By 2015, adult literacy rates in Southeast Asia will have risen from 47 percent to 70 percent primarily because of efforts by UNESCO. It is tempting for politicians to cite the economic downturn and bureaucratic missteps as grounds for the United States to decrease funding and disengage from the United Nations. But it is clear that the United Nations and other multilateral institutions advance U.S. national security and foreign policy goals.
The United Nations has provided serious economic benefits to Americans as well. According a report by the Better World Campaign, while the United States contributes $2.47 billion to the U.N. Secretariat, it receives $4.12 billion in economic benefits. This means that for every dollar we pay, we receive more than $1.60 in return. In addition, U.N. agencies such as the International Maritime Organization and the Universal Postal Union help U.S. business compete in the global marketplace by establishing international standards and regulations that ensure security and efficiency for companies around the world.
Over the next month, both presidential candidates will have the opportunity to make firm commitments to continued U.S. engagement in multilateral institutions, including pledges to maintain current funding levels, ratify important treaties like those supporting the rights of women and the disabled, lead international efforts to expose human rights abuses, and resist attempts by authoritarian governments to undermine existing human rights mechanisms.
As a founding member of the United Nations, the United States has a responsibility to uphold and promote universal human rights norms. The next president should affirm this responsibility and ensure that America continues to provide strong leadership within multilateral institutions.
This blog is part of the series "Ten Critical Human Rights Challenges for the Next President," sponsored by Freedom House. The series will feature renowned experts writing on some of the top human rights issues that should be addressed by the presidential candidates and the next administration. As the candidates participate in policy debates we look forward to a lively discussion of these and other important foreign affairs issues facing our country. For the full series please visit the Freedom at Issue Blog.