Last week, U.N. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson released of the text of a resolution establishing a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton is right that the resolution, supported by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and much of the U.N. establishment, is a major disappointment. Any proposal that maintains the existing Commission's relativism on human rights, including allowing despotic regimes to serve as members, does not deserve U.S. support.
A Continuing Embarrassment
The United Nations' record on promoting basic human rights has come under well deserved criticism in recent years. Members of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the U.N.'s primary human rights body, include some of the world's worst human rights violators, such as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Even Secretary-General Kofi Annan has acknowledged, "The commission's declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system."
The embarrassment of an ineffective CHR led the United States and other countries to call for the abolition of the Commission and its replacement with a new Human Rights Council. Over months of negotiation, these efforts to create a credible human rights body have been strongly opposed by human rights abusers in the U.N. Such states have sought to perpetuate their hold on the CHR in order to block scrutiny of their policies.
The resolution's text demonstrates that the abusers have succeeded in thwarting the goal of democratic societies to build an international human rights institution worthy of a leadership role in the 21st century.
U.S. support for this proposal is especially unwarranted because approving the new Council will erroneously suggest fundamental change.
Coming Up Short
Among the many disappointing aspects of the
Feb. 23 resolution:
There are no criteria for membership on the Council. The proposal
merely suggests a state's human rights record be "taken into
account" "when electing members." Even states under Security
Council sanction would not automatically be excluded. While there
is a provision for suspending a Council member that commits gross
and systematic violations of human rights, that step can 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
All member states are eligible for Council membership. While there
is a periodic review requirement, there is no guarantee that even
those countries found complicit in massive and sustained human
rights abuses would be censured. The review is not tied to a
mandatory outcome and takes place only after the elections.
Instead of a much smaller body designed to attract the best
citizens of each regional group, the proposal would make only a
minimal reduction in membership, from 53 members to 47.
The proposal 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 group,
the greatest decline.
States that are elected must rotate off every two terms. The United
States, which had been a member of the Commission every term since
1947, with one exception, and has played a leadership role in
efforts to promote human rights throughout its history, as well as
contributing 22 percent of its costs, would be ineligible for
Council membership every six years.
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 is given a mandate to follow up on goals and
commitments "emanating from U.N. conferences and summits," many of
which have been specifically rejected by the United States.
- 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.
More of the Same and Something Different
The Eliasson proposal will not create a credible U.N. human rights body. On the contrary, it will give rise to a new agency just as likely to operate against the interests of the United States and fellow democracies as the prior Commission. The difficulties in negotiating a credible international human rights body in an institution which gives serial human rights abusers a veto over the result are a systemic U.N. problem. But that does not justify democracies capitulating to the pressure to make newness an end in itself.
The United States is right to resist the clamor to approve this proposal without a complete overhaul. It is far better to say no than to grant unwarranted credibility to an institution that unlikely to improve upon the disgraced Commission.
The time is right for the United Stated to pursue a two-track strategy on human rights. Disengaging from the U.N.'s human rights apparatus, not matter how flawed it is, would weaken U.S. influence. But it may be that the U.N. is unable to hold its members accountable for their human rights abuses. For that reason, the U.S. should establish an independent human rights body outside of the U.N., drawing in other nations that are dedicated to promoting basic human rights and freedoms. This new institution could promote basic human rights when the U.N. falls short and hold the U.N.'s human rights body to account. As the Eliasson proposal proves, the U.N. is too heavily influenced by the human rights abusers to serve as the sole authority on human rights.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation. This paper is based on Anne Bayefsky, Danielle Pletka, and Brett Schaefer, "United Nations Experts Agree: U.N. Resolution on Human Rights Council Does Not Deserve U.S. Support," February 24, 2006.