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.
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
The U.S. can use its diplomatic resources more profitably than to
pursue now a seat on this unpromising body.
The Failures of the
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
There are no criteria for membership on the
Council. New members of the
Council will be elected by a simple majority of the General
Assembly. No state, no matter how poor its human rights record, is
barred from membership-even states under Security Council sanction
are not excluded. UN member states are simply instructed that a
state's human rights record should be "taken into account" when
they vote for prospective Council members. Some UN member states
have pledged to oppose human rights abusers seeking Council
membership, but they are unlikely to have the votes necessary to
block their election.
The peer-review mechanism would not
automatically affect eligibility for Council membership.
While there is a periodic review
requirement for Council members, the review is not tied to a
mandatory outcome and there is no guarantee that even countries
found complicit in massive and sustained human rights abuses would
be censured. While there is a provision for suspending a Council
member that commits gross and systematic violations of human
rights, that step could be taken only with the agreement of
two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly. Not even 50
percent of the General Assembly could agree that Sudan was
guilty of human rights violations in November 2005; reaching this
threshold would be near impossible.
There is only a minimal reduction in
membership from the old chr. Instead of a smaller, more streamlined body
designed to attract the best members of each regional group, the
resolution makes only a minimal reduction in membership, from 53
members to 47.
The resolution significantly shifts the
balance of power away from the Western regional group.
The African and Asian groups will hold
55 percent of the votes. The proportional representation of the
Asian group will see the greatest increase, and the Western
European and Others Group (which includes the United States) the greatest decline. Indeed, the Western
group absorbed half of the total reduction of 6 seats, despite that
the group is composed mostly of free democracies that observe
fundamental human rights and freedoms and support those policies
abroad. The end result is to reduce the voice of countries likely
to promote human rights.
Special sessions of the Commission can be
called by only one-third of the Council's membership.
Hailed as an improved capacity to deal
with urgent human rights situations, the composition of the new
Council will make it more likely that special sessions will be
about the United States
and Israel than
about China or Sudan.
The Council has a mandate to follow up goals
and commitments "emanating from U.N. conferences and
summits." Many of these do
not have universal support and lack legal standing.
The resolution erodes the well-established
standard of freedom of speech. A last-minute addition in response to the
Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Danish cartoons
affair places an emphasis on roles and responsibilities rather than
explicitly endorsing freedom of speech.
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.
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.
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,