The Bush Administration announced on March 6 that, for the
second consecutive year, the United States will not seek election
to be one of the 47 members of the United Nations Human Rights
Council (HRC). In the judgment of the Administration, the record of
the Council over its first year has not been a significant
improvement over the discredited Commission on Human Rights that it
Despite criticism from human rights groups, U.N. advocates, and
political opponents in Congress, the decision does not signal a
lack of U.S. commitment to fundamental human rights or to making
the Council an effective instrument to advance human rights. On the
contrary, the U.S. has been a close observer and active contributor
to Council deliberations and proceedings even though it is not a
member. Despite the best efforts of the U.S. and other countries,
the Council has fallen far short of expectations. The decision not
to run for a seat is the best way to convey U.S. disappointment
over the Council's performance in its inaugural year.
Human Rights Hypocrisy
Since the birth of the United Nations, protecting and advancing
fundamental human rights has been one of the organization's primary
objectives. The drafters of the U.N. Charter included a pledge by
member states "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in
the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of
men and women." U.N. treaties, such as the Universal
Declaration on Human Rights, which the General Assembly passed in
1948, form the core of international standards for human
Yet the U.N.'s recent record in promoting fundamental human
rights has been one of failure and inaction. No institution
illustrated this failing more than the U.N. Commission on Human
Rights (CHR), which for 60 years was the premier human rights body
in the U.N. system charged with reviewing the human rights
performance of states and promoting human rights around the
world. Sadly, the CHR devolved into a feckless
organization that human rights abusers used to block criticism and
action and that was abused as a forum for politically charged
attacks on Israel. The disrepute of the CHR grew so great that
even former Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged, "We have
reached a point at which the Commission's declining credibility has
cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a
whole, and where piecemeal reforms will not be enough."
After lengthy deliberations and negotiations, the U.N. General
Assembly voted to replace the Commission with a new Human Rights
Council in March 2006. Unfortunately, during the negotiations, the
General Assembly decided not to adopt the many reforms and
standards proposed to ensure that the Council would not repeat the
mistakes of the Commission. The lack of membership criteria led the
U.S. to vote against the Human Rights Council in the General
Assembly. "Absent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible
membership, the United States could not join consensus on this
resolution," explained then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John
Bolton. "We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be
able to say that the HRC would be better than its predecessor."
Significantly, well known human rights abusers Burma, China, Cuba,
Ethiopia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe all voted
in favor of the new Council.
After the resolution establishing the Human Rights Council
passed over U.S. objection, the U.S. announced that it would not
run for a seat on the HRC in 2006 but would consider running for a
seat in 2007 if the Council proved effective. Thus the U.S.
reserved judgment until the Council had a chance to prove its
merit. As noted by former Ambassador Bolton, "The real test will be
the quality of membership that emerges on this Council and whether
it takes effective action to address serious human rights abuse
cases like Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Burma."
On both counts, the Council has validated U.S. concerns. While
no particularly flagrant human rights abuser from Africa, such as
Sudan or Zimbabwe, sought a seat on the Council for fear of not
receiving the requisite votes, and Iran and Venezuela were
defeated, when the dust settled, it was clear that simply creating
a new Council would not convince the General Assembly to spurn the
candidacies of human rights abusers. Despite their poor human
rights records and the transparently disingenuous nature of their
pledges, China, Cuba, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia all succeeded in
gaining support from a majority of the General Assembly, thus
winning seats on the Council in the May 2006 election. They were
joined by fellow abusers and unfree governments in Algeria and
Russia. Unsurprisingly, the Council has mirrored
the poor performance of the Commission in its agenda,
deliberations, decisions, and resolutions.
The Disappointing Record of the Human
In its first year of existence, the Human Rights Council has
proven just as feckless in confronting human rights abuses and as
vulnerable to politically motivated attacks on Israel as its
predecessor. In the first three sessions of the Council and an
additional four special sessions, the body failed to take
substantive action to censure the government of Sudan for its role
in the genocide in Darfur. Instead, the Council adopted two mild
decisions expressing "concern" regarding the human rights and
humanitarian situation in Darfur and decided during its fourth
special session in December 2006 to dispatch a "High-Level Mission
to assess the human rights situation in Darfur and the needs of the
Sudan in this regard." Even so, the government of Sudan
announced that it will not grant visas for the Council's Assessment
Mission to carry out a review of the situation on the ground.
The Council failed entirely to address ongoing repression in
Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe. This
is a particular disappointment, given that even the U.N. General
Assembly, with the support of the U.S., addressed human rights
concerns in Belarus, Iran, Burma, and North Korea in December 2006,
over the objections of many repressive governments.
Instead, the Council focused most of its effort on offering
one-sided condemnation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the
brief conflict in southern Lebanon. In a disheartening repeat of
one of the old Commission's worst failings, the Human Rights
Council decided to hold its first "Special Session" on Israel, at
which it adopted a one-sided resolution condemning that nation and
ignoring the provocations of Palestinian armed groups.
The Council convened its second "Special Session" on August 11,
2006, during which it adopted a resolution--27 to 11, with 8
abstentions--that strongly condemned Israel for "violations of
human rights and breaches of international humanitarian law in
Lebanon" and again ignored provocations by Hezbollah.
The Council convened its third "Special Session" on November
15--again on Israel. Indeed, according to U.N. Watch, a Geneva
based non-governmental organization focused on the work of the
Human Rights Council, "At the 47-nation Council...there have been
only 10 resolutions addressing specific countries: eight harsh
condemnations of Israel, and two soft, non-condemnatory resolutions
The Case Against Participation
The Council's disappointing record led the U.S. to decline to
seek election to it for the second year in a row, as State
Department Spokesman Sean McCormack explained:
We believe that the Human Rights Council has thus far not proved
itself to be a credible body in the mission that it has been
charged with. There has been a nearly singular focus on issues
related to Israel, for example, to the exclusion of examining
issues of real concern to the international system, whether that's
in Cuba or Burma or in North Korea.
So we are going to remain as observers to the Human Rights
Council and we hope that over time, that this body will expand its
focus and become a more credible institution representative of the
important mission with which it is charged. But nonetheless, the
United States will remain actively engaged not only in the UN
system but also outside of the UN system in promoting human
The decision of the U.S. last year not to run for a seat on the
Human Rights Council drew sharp criticism from human rights groups,
U.N. advocates, and political opponents. These groups claim that
the U.S. is undermining the credibility of the Council and that the
body would be a stronger, more effective advocate for human rights
if the U.S. were on it. Tim Wirth, President of the United Nations
Foundation and Better World Fund, made this point in February 2007
For three years, steps have been taken to reform the human
rights machinery in the UN. Unfortunately, the U.S. chose not to
participate in the new Human Rights Council, making it less likely
that the new organization can become the effective voice needed in
the international community. Congress can help by reviewing this
decision and urging the Administration to run for the new Council
Similarly, Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), Chairman of the
House Committee on Foreign Affairs, strongly criticized the
Administration's decision not to run for a seat in 2007:
[I]n an act of unparalleled defeatism, the Administration
announced that for a second year in a row, the United States will
step aside to allow a cabal of military juntas, single-party states
and tin-pot dictators to retain their death grip on the world's
human rights machinery.
During the past several months, we have seen the sad and tragic
results of the U.S. retreat from the new Human Rights Council.
Despite the fact that the Council's membership represents a slight
improvement over the dysfunctional Human Rights Commission it
replaced, it has been even more thoroughly captured by rogues like
Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Pakistan, as they have aggressively
seized the ground that the United States has ceded.
There is little evidence to support this claim. While a majority
of the Council's membership (25 countries out of 47 members) is
ranked "free" by Freedom House and all members pledged their
commitment to human rights standards when they ran for election,
the actions of the Council reveal a profound lack of commitment to
human rights or freedom. An examination of the decisions of the
Council reveals that the bulk of membership has declined to
scrutinize major violators of human rights and, instead, supported
a disproportionate focus on censuring Israel. This politicized
agenda is led by the 17 members of the Organization of the Islamic
Conference (OIC) that sit on the Council (only 16 votes are
necessary to call a special session).
Those countries--primarily Western democracies--trying to focus
the Council on serious human rights violations rather than a
politicized Israeli-focused agenda have been greatly outnumbered.
Representative Lantos disparages their commitment by suggesting
that they lack America's dedication to advancing human rights. He
and other critics also incorrectly assume that simply having the
U.S. as a member of the Council would have changed its decisions.
But because the membership of the Human Rights Council is based on
geographic representation, if the U.S. were to run for a seat, it
would simply displace one of the existing seven countries
representing the Western European and Others geographic region who
already vote largely as the U.S. would vote. The effect of a U.S.
vote on the Council would be marginal.
Indeed, the United States' Council membership is far less
important to the Council's reputation and effectiveness than U.N.
member states' support of the candidacies of human rights abusers.
The second election for Council membership could actually be worse
than the first. Belarus is vying to be elected to one of the two
seats vacated by the Czech Republic and Poland, and Venezuela is
seeking to replace Argentina or Ecuador. As a result, the U.S. has
focused on rallying opposition to the candidacies of human rights
abusers. As noted by Deputy Assistant Secretary for International
Organization Affairs Mark P. Lagon, "It's essential that this
council be manned by firefighters rather than arsonists."
Nor would winning a seat on the Council necessarily give the
U.S. greater voice or influence. Any U.N. member state can comment
and speak to issues before the Council, and the U.S. has availed
itself frequently of this opportunity. It has expressed its support
or opposition regarding various resolutions and decisions and
voiced its views on the universal periodic review of governments'
human rights records and Council deliberations over mandates,
mechanisms, and special rapporteurs. Based on the experience of the
defunct Commission on Human Rights, where the U.S. often saw itself
lined up against the world's most egregious human rights abusers
and the other Western democracies plied the middle ground, it could
be reasonably argued that having the U.S. as a less visible actor
encourages other states dedicated to human rights to assume a more
active role instead of relying on the U.S. to lead.
The human rights activists are correct that U.S. participation
would no doubt increase the prestige of the Council. However, the
poor performance of the Council to date is a strong reason for the
U.S. not to run for a seat. Why should the U.S. lend legitimacy to
a flawed body like the Council? When the Council begins to take its
responsibilities seriously, a decision by the U.S. to run for a
seat would underscore the progress made. A premature decision to
run for a seat would mask the deplorable state of the current
Council. As noted by Sean McCormack, "We would hope that if we do
come to the day when we decide to run for the Human Rights Council,
it will have gotten to the point where it is a credible institution
and that we could, in fact, lend our diplomatic weight to the
council as a participant."
Advancing fundamental human rights is and should be a U.S.
priority. However, the Human Rights Council has not proven to be an
effective instrument in addressing and advancing human rights in
its inaugural year. The Bush Administration has made the right
decision in not running for a seat on the Council. U.S.
participation in international bodies should not be automatic;
rather, the U.S. should base its participation on the effectiveness
and relevance of the body to U.S. policy priorities. On that basis,
the Human Rights Council is a grave disappointment that is unlikely
to be greatly improved by U.S. membership. The U.S. should continue
to observe and participate in Council deliberations, as every U.N.
member state may, but it should refuse to lend the Council the
credibility of U.S. membership until the Council takes its
responsibilities seriously by censuring major human rights abusers,
exposing their reprehensible actions to public scrutiny, and
eschewing its disproportionate focus on Israel. Moreover, if the
performance of the Council continues to disappoint, the U.S. should
reconsider its financial support for the body.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay
Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "Secretary-General's Address to the
Commission on Human Rights," Office of the Spokesman, April 7,
2005, at www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=1388.
Also see Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary for
International Organization Affairs, U.S. Department of State, "The
UN Commission on Human Rights: Protector or Accomplice?" testimony
before the Subcommittee on Africa, Committee on International
Relations, U.S. House of Representatives, April 19, 2005, at www.state.gov/p/io/rls/rm/44983.htm.
Ambassador John R. Bolton, "Explanation of Vote
by Ambassador John R. Bolton, U.S. Permanent Representative to the
United Nations, on the Human Rights Council Draft Resolution, in
the General Assembly," USUN Press Release # 51, March 15, 2006, at
Brett D. Schaefer, "The United Nations Human Rights Council:
Repeating Past Mistakes."
"General Assembly Establishes New Human Rights
Council by Vote of 170 in Favour to 4 Against, with 3 Abstentions,"
Department of Public Information, General Assembly Document
GA/10449, March 15, 2006, at www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/ga10449.doc.htm.
Ambassador John R. Bolton, "Explanation of Vote by Ambassador John
R. Bolton, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on
the Human Rights Council Draft Resolution, in the General
Brett D. Schaefer, "Human Rights Relativism Redux: UN Human Rights
Council Mirrors Discredited Human Rights Commission," Heritage
Foundation WebMemo No. 1069, May 10, 2006, at www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/wm1069.cfm,
and Brett D. Schaefer, "The United Nations Human Rights Council:
Repeating Past Mistakes."
For instance, the July resolution on Israel and Palestine passed by
a vote of 29 to 11 with five abstentions, the August decision on
the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon passed by a vote of 27 to
11 with 8 abstentions, the November decision on Darfur involved a
vote of 25 to 11 with 10 abstentions. In these cases, the countries
opposed included Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France,
Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and the United
Kingdom, with Switzerland and Japan voting for at least one. "Human
Rights Council Decides to Dispatch Urgent Fact-Finding Mission to
the Occupied Palestinian Territories," Press Release, July 6, 2006,
"Second Special Session of Human Rights Council Decides to
Establish High-Level Inquiry Commission for Lebanon," Press
Release, August 11, 2006, at www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/(httpNewsByYear_en)/F16C6E9AE98880A0C12571C700379F8C?OpenDocument;
and "Human Rights Council Notes With Concern Serious Human Rights
and Humanitarian Situation in Darfur," Press Release, November 28,
2006 at www.unog.ch/unog/website/news_media.nsf/(httpNewsByYear_en)/62C6B3F928618CCEC12572340046C4BB?OpenDocument.
According to U.N. Watch, "Yet at the Council so far, only 11
members--Canada, Japan, and the European countries of the Czech
Republic, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland,
Romania, Ukraine and the United Kingdom--have generally stood
together to defend the principles that the Council is supposed to
promote. Not a single free democracy from Latin America or Africa,
and only one from Asia, has been part of this group. And the
Community of Democracies has not only played no role at the
Council, its current chair, Mali, consistently has voted
counter-productively to democracy and human rights." U.N. Watch,
"Report Card: UN Human Rights Council Second Regular and Third
Special Sessions," November 24, 2006, at www.unwatch.org/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=bdKKISNqEmG&b=1330819&ct=3267959.