April 1, 2009 | WebMemo on International Organizations
The United Nations Human Rights Council's (HRC) first three years have been bitterly disappointing, with the council continuing the worst practices of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (CHR), including stigmatizing Israel and overlooking serious human rights violations by China, Cuba, and other states. These practices led the U.N. General Assembly to replace the CHR with the HRC in 2006. When the HRC also proved lacking, the Bush Administration distanced the U.S. from the council.
Since the American presidential election in November 2008, human rights organizations and nations that support the HRC have anticipated that the U.S. would reverse its policy of non-engagement with the council. On March 31, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice fulfilled this expectation by announcing that the U.S. would seek a seat on the HRC in the upcoming May election to "make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights."
This decision is a mistake. The HRC is a fundamentally flawed organization that, absent fundamental changes, will not be improved by U.S. participation.
The Disappointing Council
The U.N. Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights after the CHR's reputation had fallen so far that even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged that "the Commission's declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."
Regrettably, during negotiations to establish the council, many basic reforms and standards designed to ensure that the HRC would not repeat the commission's mistakes failed to gain the necessary support in the General Assembly. As a result, the U.S. was one of only a handful of countries that voted against creating the council.
Critically, nothing was done to address the problem of states seeking seats on the council to prevent scrutiny rather than to promote human rights. Because seats are allocated based on regional groupings, a few determined states can dominate the council's agenda by manipulating voting through regional blocs and groups such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). In its first three years, the HRC has proven itself to be weak and ineffectual in promoting fundamental human rights, in large part because groups like the OIC have been able to use their members to influence council deliberations, resolutions, and decisions.
Among its dubious accomplishments, the HRC:
The OIC, through its members on the HRC, has succeeded in having the council condemn Israel multiple times and in passing resolutions on the defamation of religion that support constraints on the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression. Moreover, the controversial Durban Review Conference, known commonly as Durban II, was orchestrated under the auspices of the HRC. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced its intention to boycott the Durban II conference, pronouncing the gathering irredeemable.
A Naïve and Shortsighted Decision
The HRC has been rightly criticized as a disappointing replacement for the CHR.
Based on the council's poor record, the Bush Administration chose not to run for a seat on the HRC and distanced itself from the council's proceedings. The Obama Administration's reversal of that decision in its announcement that it will seek a seat on the council is naïve and shortsighted. Rather than improve the council, U.S. participation will more likely lend underserved legitimacy to its destructive efforts.
There is no basis for believing that the U.S. would be any more effective as a member than as an observer. Any U.N. member state can comment on issues before the council, and the U.S. has frequently expressed support of or opposition to various HRC resolutions and decisions. Because Membership is based on geographic representation, even if the U.S. won a seat, it would simply displace one of the seven countries representing the "Western Europe and Other States" region on the council, which already vote largely in concert with U.S. positions. In numerous votes over the past few years, the council has adopted resolutions over the objections of 11 or 12 nations--generally Western and other developed nations, such as Japan, that have a long-standing commitment to human rights. U.S. Membership would not change this situation.
Indeed, Canada has often filled the traditional U.S. role of raising controversial resolutions and demanding votes, but Canada's admirable actions have not succeeded in persuading the council to operate more responsibly. Even as a member, the U.S. could not stop the council from being used to undermine human rights.
The HRC Needs Fundamental Reform, Not U.S. Membership
The resolution creating the council requires the U.N. General Assembly to "review the status of the Council within five years," or by April 2011. Instead of engaging a fundamentally flawed institution, the Obama Administration should call for the General Assembly to schedule its review of the council at the earliest possible date. In order to address the problems undermining the council, the Obama Administration should, at a minimum, seek to:
The Obama Administration is wrong if it believes that the efforts of countries determined to undermine the aims of the HRC will be overcome by U.S. Membership on the council. Instead of embracing the HRC, the Obama Administration should call for an immediate review of the council and press for serious Membership criteria and other reforms to rescue the council from irrelevance.
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 Heritage Foundation.
Press release, "U.S. to Run for Election to the
UN Human Rights Council," U.S. Department of State, March 31, 2009,
/r/pa/prs/ps/2009/03/121049.htm (April 1, 2009).
Kofi 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 http://www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=1388 (March 25, 2009).
a more detailed analysis, see Brett D. Schaefer, "The U.S. Is Right
to Shun the U.N. Human Rights Council," Heritage Foundation
WebMemo No. 1910, May 2, 2008, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/International
Organizations/wm1910.cfm; Brett D. Schaefer ,"The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Disastrous First Year and Discouraging Signs for Reform," Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1042, September 5, 2007, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/hl1042.cfm.
The 1503 procedure is named after the U.N. Economic and Social Council resolution that established the procedure by which the council considered reliable reports or claims from NGOs of consistent patterns of gross human rights violations. "Human Rights Council Complaint Procedure," U.N. Human Rights Council, at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/complaints.htm (November 24, 2008). See also, "Procedure for Dealing with Communications Relating to Violations of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms," U.N. Economic and Social Council, Resolution No. 1503, May 27, 1970.
Steven Groves, "Why the U.S. Should Oppose
'Defamation of Religions' Resolutions at the United Nations,"
Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2206, November 10,
2008, at http://www.heritage.org/research/
Brett D. Schaefer and Steven Groves, "U.S. Boycott of U.N. Durban II Conference on Racism: The Right Decision by the Obama Administration," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2326, March 4, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/wm2326.cfm.
Schaefer, "The United Nations Human Rights Council."
"Human Rights Council," U.N. General Assembly,
A/RES/60/251, April 3, 2006, at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/A.
RES.60.251_En.pdf (March 25, 2009).
"Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council," U.N. Human Rights Council, at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/chr/special/index.htm (March 25, 2009).
For an example, see Egypt's repeated interruptions of the Cairo Institute presentation at U.N. Human Rights Council, 8th Session, June 9, 2008.