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
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
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:
- Discontinued consideration of the suppression of human rights
in Iran and Uzbekistan under the 1503 procedure;
- Eliminated the Special Rapporteurs on the situations in Belarus
- Repeatedly singled out Israel for condemnation; and
- Failed to address deplorable human rights violations in such
countries as Belarus, China, Cuba, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi
Arabia, and Zimbabwe.
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
A Naïve and Shortsighted
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
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
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
- Strengthen HRC Membership criteria. This would include
raising the threshold for election from a simple majority to at
least two-thirds of the General Assembly, barring governments under
U.N. Security Council sanction for human rights abuses from council
Membership, and reducing the size of the council from 47 countries
to a maximum of 30 countries.
- Eliminate the institutionalized bias against Israel. The
threshold for calling HRC special sessions should be increased from
one-third of the council's Membership to a majority and the
permanent mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the situation of
human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 should
be made nonpermanent to conform to other mandates. Furthermore,
this mandate should be expanded to include human rights violations
and violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis.
- Expand the use of country-specific mandates. A review
once every four years under the council's Universal Periodic Review
of human rights practices is no substitute for "naming and shaming"
the world's worst abusers of human rights and holding them to
continuous review under an ongoing mandate.
- Create a more robust mechanism for Universal Periodic
Review. Such a mechanism would prevent countries from
dominating the review period with praise in order to limit time for
those states willing to criticize a nation's human rights failings,
expanding the time allotted to NGOs during the review, and clamping
down on procedural maneuvers designed to silence and intimidate NGO
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
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.