The House and Senate passed legislation this past summer to
withhold U.S. funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Congress
deserves praise for taking this action. In its first year, the
Council has proven to be no improvement over the Commission on
Human Rights that it replaced. Member states with poor human rights
records have used the Council to obsessively criticize Israel while
blocking scrutiny of many serious human rights crises around the
world. These same states have led an effort to adopt rules and
procedures that undermine and weaken the Council's ability to
advance and promote human rights.
The legislation is largely symbolic because the U.S. cannot
directly withhold money from the Council, only an equivalent amount
from its total U.N. assessment. But its passage does send a clear
and powerful signal to other countries that Congress, not just the
Administration, is displeased with the activities of the "reformed"
Council and will act to hold it to account. To further reform and
enable Congress to more effectively direct U.S. taxpayer dollars
away from counterproductive bodies like the Council and toward more
productive U.N. activities, Congress should take steps to encourage
the U.N. to shift funding for U.N. technical and specialized
agencies, bodies, and commissions supported by the U.N. regular
budget to voluntary contributions.
Lack of Accountability on Human Rights
at the U.N.
Since the birth of the United Nations, protecting and advancing
fundamental human rights has been one of the organization's primary
objectives. Yet the U.N.'s recent record in promoting human rights
is riddled with failure and inaction. For nearly six decades, the
U.N. Commission on Human Rights (CHR) epitomized this failure as
the premier U.N. human rights body. For decades, the Commission was
used by human rights abusers to block criticism of themselves and
their actions and as a forum for attacks on Israel. It took years
of missteps by the Commission, including electing Libya chairman in
2003, before former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally
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." The U.N. General Assembly passed a
resolution in March 2006 replacing the Commission with a new Human
The May 2006 election for Council membership, however, showed
that simply creating a new body had not convinced the General
Assembly to spurn the candidacies of human rights abusers. A number
of states with dismal human rights records currently sit on the
Council, including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Cuba, China,
Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
The United States was one of only four countries to vote against
the resolution creating the Council. The U.S. cast its vote out of
concern that the new Council would lack safeguards against the
problems that afflicted the Commission. The deplorable performance
of the Council in its first year demonstrates this concern to have
been well-founded. In its first year, the Council, just like the
discredited Commission, has exhibited an obsessive, discriminatory
focus on Israel while ignoring serious human rights abuses around
During that year, the Council failed to address ongoing
repression in Belarus, China, Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe and
many other dire human rights situations around the world. Nor did
the HRC censure the government of Sudan for its role in the
genocide in Darfur. Instead, it held one special session on Darfur
and adopted one mild resolution and four mild decisions expressing
"concern" regarding the human rights and humanitarian
situation in Darfur, dispatching a "High-Level Mission to
assess the human rights situation in Darfur and the needs of the
Sudan in this regard." Meanwhile, the Council held three special
sessions on Israel and passed ten resolutions condemning
Israel and another four decisions on Israel's human rights record.
More than 70 percent of the Council's country-specific resolutions
and decisions have focused on Israel. Israel is the focus of the
Council's only permanent mandate.
The Council has done worse than ignore human rights abuses; it
has ended procedures inherited from the Commission scrutinizing
human rights practices in Belarus, Cuba, Iran, and
Uzbekistan--countries widely known to deny basic rights to their
citizens. The Council has also adopted new rules and procedures,
including a new "Code of Conduct," to intimidate independent
experts. According to the U.S. Department of State,
many of the institution-building procedures adopted by the Council
are "seriously flawed" and will make the many problems of the
Council "even worse."
The Council's actions in its inaugural year are not worthy of an
organization claiming to be the world's premier human rights body.
It has continued the worst aspects of the old Commission, quickly
becoming a platform for human rights abusers to deflect criticism
rather than be held to account.
The Bush Administration wisely decided not to lend this
seriously flawed body the legitimacy and credibility it would gain
from U.S. membership. Although this policy has been criticized by
some Members of Congress who believe that U.S. participation could
improve the body, the majority of the House and Senate have
acknowledged the sad reality that the human rights abusers are
running the Council's agenda just as they did the Commission's.
This past June, the House of Representatives passed legislation
that would withhold U.S. contributions to the Human Rights Council.
In September, the Senate passed legislation to withhold U.S.
funding to the Council.
Unfortunately, these actions are mostly symbolic because of the
way that the Council is funded. The HRC is funded through the U.N.
regular budget. The U.S. is assessed 22 percent of that budget
(about $439 million in 2006). The U.S. payment to the
regular budget is taken by the U.N. and disbursed to fund its
activities, including the Council. Thus, the U.S. cannot directly
withhold money from the Council and can only withhold an amount
equal to the U.S. portion of the Council's budget (22 percent of
the HRC budget, or about $3 million) from the U.N. regular budget.
This withholding would have little direct effect on the Council's
budget because the withholding would be spread across all U.N.
activities funded through the regular budget.
Despite that the withholding will have little practical effect,
Congress should be commended for its action. Congress's action
sends a clear and powerful signal of U.S. displeasure with the
Council. Congress's inability to directly reduce funding for a
clearly malfunctioning U.N. body like the Council illustrates the
need for the U.N. regular budget to be overhauled to shift funding
for many U.N. bodies and activities away from the regular budget
and toward voluntary contributions. The current process prevents
accountability. Activities that fail to deliver results do not
deserve long-term, inviolate funding streams. Assured funding
through assessed contributions is one of the reasons why some U.N.
mandates and activities continue past the point of relevance or
after they no longer function as intended. The U.N. system should
move toward increased voluntary funding to impose a stronger market
incentive for programs to meet their goals and justify continued
funding. In addition to withholding funding for inept or
malfunctioning U.N. bodies, Congress should consider taking
additional action to encourage the U.N. to do this.
The Human Rights Council desperately needs improvement, and
Congress and the Bush Administration should continue their efforts
to fix the HRC's membership criteria, procedures, mechanisms,
and institutions. Perhaps one day the Council will merit U.S.
financial support and participation as a member. Given the
Council's current state, however, the U.S. should refuse to lend it
the credibility of U.S. membership or the symbolic support of U.S.
contributions until it takes its responsibilities seriously by
censuring major human rights abusers, exposing their reprehensible
actions to public scrutiny, and eschewing its disproportionate
focus on Israel.
The U.S. should not be satisfied with a flawed, biased, and
ineffective Council. Members of the House and Senate who supported
withholding funds to the Council should be commended for holding
the Council accountable for its failure to advance and advocate
human rights in a serious, unbiased fashion. Any final conference
report on the 2008 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and
Related Programs Appropriations Act should retain the language
withholding funding for the Council.
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
Annan, "Secretary-General's Address to the Commission on Human
Rights," Office of the Spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General,
April 7, 2005, at www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=1388.
See also Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary for
International Organization Affairs, U.S. Department of State, "The
U.N. Commission on Human Rights: Protector or Accomplice?"
testimony before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights
and International Operations, Committee on International Relations,
U.S. House of Representatives, April 19, 2005, at www.state.gov/p/io/rls/rm/44983.htm.
more information, see Brett D. Schaefer, "The United Nations Human
Rights Council: A Disastrous First Year and Discouraging Signs for
U.N. budget is adopted every two years. However, the budget is
adjusted annually, generally resulting in an increase. The
2006-2007 regular budget was set at $3.83 billion in December 2005
but increased to $4.174 billion in the revised budget. See
"Programme Budget for the Biennium 2006-2007: Revised Budget
Appropriations for the Biennium 2006-2007," U.N. General Assembly
Resolution A/RES/61/253 A-C, 61st Sess., March 14, 2007. The U.S.
appropriated $439 million for the regular budget in 2006, which was
more than 22 percent of the original U.N. regular budget but less
than 22 percent of the revised budget. See U.S. Department of
State, "International Affairs Function 150, Fiscal Year 2008 Budget
Request: Summary and Highlights," p. 87, at www.state.gov/documents/organization/80151.pdf.