THE BLOG
03/03/2006 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

John Bolton on the UN Human Rights Council: Hero or Nemesis?

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John Bolton is a very smart guy -- a tough, pugnacious, thumb-in-them-there-foreigners-eye kind of guy.

A few days ago, remarkably both the New York Times and the Washington Post lauded our recess-appointed American Ambassador to the United Nations for holding out for a UN Human Rights Council that met a higher bar.

The editorial writers for those papers did not call me before they wrote those sycophantic pieces. If they had, they might have learned a bit more regarding the background about Ambassador Bolton and this Human Rights Council debate.

First of all, Ambassador Bolton failed to even attend all but one of the thirty plus negotiations that occurred about the Human Rights Council.

Secondly, these editorialists should have worked harder to discern the differences in nuance, language, and posture between the official State Department position and what John Bolton has been conveying. Bolton knew that the 2/3 voting requirement for HRC membership was the key point for the US and he failed to emphasize this to UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who was attempting to placate the Europeans who had backed away from this voting rule.

Had Bolton been more emphatic when it counted, Eliasson might have arm-twisted the Europeans more vigorously.

But what really bothers me about this John "human rights crusader" Bolton fiction that the Times and Post have created is that John Bolton has been sour about the Human Rights Council for four months. He began winding down expectations of a positive outcome at the end of last October. His press operation is very impressive and expertly managed in my view.

But he has kept up this theme saying nothing would come from the Human Rights Council negotiations through November, December, January, and through his tenure as President of the UN Security Council in February.

Where was John Bolton's pugnacious commitment to getting this Council set up right these last four months? The answer is that he has been trying to kill the Council all this time and attempting to knock yet another key pillar out of America's engagement with the UN.

TWN has also learned from multiple sources that John Bolton has done more than 70 editorial and press meetings and calls encouraging the notion that the press could "demonstrate objectivity" by supporting his position against Eliasson's Human Rights Council proposal and holding out for something better.

Again, all good credit to his media staff -- but Bolton has been emphasizing the failure of the Human Rights Council negotiations and did little to transmit to Eliasson what the key provisions America required in the draft were.

True to form, Bolton is publicizing a breakdown that he considers runs against American interests -- while doing nothing to publicize what would have clearly been in American interests while the negotiations were underway the last four months.

One of the provisions that Bolton opposes is one that involves regional slates of candidates. Regions can propose candidate nations to fill a specified number of slots on the HRC. However, any individual nation -- if it fails to earn a majority of votes in the UN General Assembly -- will not be allowed to ascend from the regional slate to the Human Rights Council. The U.S. believes that these slates will still produce some rosters of outrageous human-rights abusers.

What is odd is that if the U.S. were deeply and seriously worried about this provision, the normal process for trying to get the matter resolved or renegotiated is for the US Mission to share its concerns with NGOs involved and the office of Jan Eliasson, the President of the UN General Assembly. According to several NGO representatives, this matter was mentioned during the NGO briefing meeting by the US Mission in the final week of negotiations. . .the final week.

At some point, one has to go back and not only weigh the laudable goals Bolton is expressing as his objectives for the structure of the Human Rights Council but also the manner in which he pursued this end all along.

Bolton is saying some impressive things about what the Human Rights Council out to be -- but he helped design the impasse that America is in by doing little to help us achieve our objectives.

Former Senator Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation has sent a letter and a Human Rights Commission/Human Rights Council Comparison Grid to Congressional leaders.

Specifically, he suggests that even the Human Rights Council that has been negotiated is better by far than the old operation.

He writes:

The proposed Council would have several key improvements over the Human Rights Commission. These include:

~ A new requirement that Council members be voted on by an affirmative vote of a majority of the General Assembly -- or 96 countries. For comparison's sake, the provision that the United States is advocating would allow for members to be voted onto the Council by a two-thirds majority of those present and voting in the General Assembly -- a number that could range between 100 and 120 votes, depending on abstentions. Also for comparison, the Commission on Human Rights allowed countries to become members by appointment from regional groups.

~ A new provision allowing Council members to be suspended at any time if they commit gross and systematic human rights violations.

~ Providing meetings throughout the year, not just once a year, making the Council more responsive to real time human rights emergencies.

These make sense to me.

But there is a serious question that has been rolling around in my head -- and perhaps I am missing something in this debate that I have not yet seen which covers the matter -- but how did John Bolton think that the U.S. was going to get on the Human Rights Council with a 2/3 voting requirement?

I now understand why he lobbied hard -- and beyond his State Department mandate -- to get the Permanent 5 Members of the Security Council on to the HRC because in the current geopolitical climate, support for America on the Commission may not run so robustly.

Some have suggested that there is a de facto stance that all members of the UN Security Council can float on and off of UN Councils at will, but I need to look further into this. But if this is not in fact the case, America's own membership is helped by the majority rule vote and harmed by the 2/3 figure.

More later on this brewing matter. And just in closing, I feel strongly that John Bolton should be given credit for the constructive things he does -- full stop.

But just as well, I don't believe in assigning him credit for his lofty Human Rights Council stance when it is clear that he's been trying to poison the environment and keep the key negotitors guessing all this time.

Bad John Bolton, bad.

Steven Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note, and is both a frequent contributor to Huffington Post and editor of Bolton Watch.