April 6, 2006 | WebMemo on International Organizations
The Bush Administration should be applauded for its decision not to seek election to the newly created United Nations Human Rights Council. The 47-seat body is not a significant improvement over the hugely discredited Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The new Council's complete lack of membership criteria renders it open to infiltration and manipulation by the world's worst human rights abusers. Significantly, Burma, Syria, Libya, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe all voted in favor of the new Council in the General Assembly, in the face of strong U.S. opposition. The brutal North Korean regime has given the Council its ringing endorsement.
With the vulnerabilities of the new Council, the U.S. has made the right decision in adopting a wait and see approach. China, Cuba, and Iran, all notorious human rights violators, have already announced their intention to run for seats on the Council. Should they gain membership, it will be a clear sign that the new Council will be just as impotent as its predecessor. If their applications and those of other dictatorships are rejected, it will demonstrate that UN member states are taking the Council more seriously than the old Commission and that the new body may merit the effort necessary to secure a seat in the future.
For now, however, that seems unlikely. As the New York Times editorialized, while skewering the failure of international human rights group such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to hold the UN to a higher standard, the Council proposal was "so watered down that it has become an ugly sham, offering cover to an unacceptable status quo." The U.S. can use its diplomatic resources more profitably than to pursue now a seat on this unpromising body.
The Failures of the Council
U.S. efforts to advance fundamental reform of the Human Rights Commission were blocked, and opponents of reform carried the day in the General Assembly. The final resolution creating the Human Rights Council contains many disappointing aspects:
A Sensible, Principled Decision
The decision by the Bush Administration to forgo seeking a seat on the Human Rights Council is entirely consistent with its principled vote against the UN resolution that established it.
Paradoxically, the U.S. wields greater leverage and influence if it decides not to run for membership. The diplomatic capital the U.S. would have to expend in order to win election would be far better spent pressing our allies and friends to vote for upstanding members of the international community and to adopt rules and procedures that would make the Council's work much more effective. U.S. diplomats should work with other countries to identify and implement a set of preferred outcomes and procedures.
The U.S. should exercise its influence by announcing it will not run for election to the new Council unless specific conditions are met, particularly in terms of membership. For instance, the U.S. should demand that the Council not elect any state listed by Freedom House in "The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies," any of the worst 60 states listed in Freedom House's "Freedom in the World," or any state subject to Chapter VII Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses or terrorism.
The United States Congress should also announce that future funding for the Human Rights Council will depend on the effectiveness of the new body. Congress should direct the State Department to report on the Council's performance in the upcoming year and restrict funds if the Council fails to meet minimum standards for membership or fails to confront prominent human rights abusers, including long standing abuses in China, Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
The U.S. gains very little from joining a defective UN Human Rights Council. Holding back preserves America's moral stance and places greater pressure on other nations to oppose efforts by human rights abusers to hinder the work of the Council just as they did the Human Rights Commission. The U.S. must not seek a seat on the Council if it is tainted by the odor of despotism or tyranny. While making every effort to push for reform, the United States must seek the creation of a complementary human rights body outside of the UN system that would be composed solely of democratic states that adhere to the basic principles of individual liberty and freedom.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs, and Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow, in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies,
 "The Shame of the United Nations", The New York Times, February 26, 2006.