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U.S. Seeks 'Positive Role' On UN Human Rights Council

  • Nikola Krastev

Critics says the UN Human Rights Council has inherited many of the flaws of its much-maligned predecessor.

Critics says the UN Human Rights Council has inherited many of the flaws of its much-maligned predecessor.

NEW YORK -- When the UN's widely discredited Human Rights Commission was abolished in 2005, there was hope that the newly established Human Rights Council would make a fresh start.

The old Human Rights Commission was often criticized for its politicization, lack of balance, and refusal to shine the spotlight on well-known human rights violators.

But critics say the new Human Rights Council faces many of the same problems. Twenty-six of the 32 condemnations the council has issued so far have been against Israel.

Some notorious rights violators sit on the council and there appears to be a reluctance to roil the waters when it comes to certain countries.

Last year, for example, the council voted against appointing a special rapporteur for Turkmenistan despite Ashgabat's questionable rights record.

Nevertheless, in announcing the United States would seek to be a member, the U.S. State Department said the decision was "in keeping with the Obama administration's 'new era of engagement' with other nations to advance American security interests."

Potential Positives

Views on possible U.S. participation in the council’s work are divided. While critics argue that it will make little difference whether the United States participates or not, supporters see a positive role Washington could play.

"The council needs leadership to take on the most serious human rights abuses," says Suzanne Nossel, chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch in New York, "it needs countries that are prepared to do work behind the scenes, to work in capitals and overcome some of the resistance that is manifested in Geneva to confronting certain issues that are politically sensitive, and I think Washington will bring that."

The United States will seek a seat on the Human Rights Council during elections scheduled for May 15. After New Zealand withdrew its bid on its behalf, Washington has a good chance of gaining a seat along with Belgium and Norway.

Membership lasts for three years. Nossel believes Washington can use that time for to help improve the council's image and effectiveness.

"You’ll see diplomacy in Geneva, diplomacy in capitals, bringing information, an evidence to bear through persuasive arguments. The U.S. is leveraged through its bilateral relationships," she says. "I think there’s a potential that the U.S. working with others can over time build up the credibility of the council, they can’t do it alone though."

Serious Reviews

Stewart Patrick, director of the program on international institutions and global governance at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, says that one area where the United States could successfully exercise its influence is in the periodical review of council members' human rights records.

So far, he says, some of the most blatant human rights abusers have been successful in manipulating or watering down these mandatory reviews to "the point of meaninglessness". The United States, Patrick says, could apply pressure on these abusers from within the council and through bilateral diplomacy.

Patrick says the United States these reviews are "a potentially powerful instrument within the council. There is also the essence that if the United States begins to take the council seriously that some fence-sitters or those who’ve been overly cautions about taking on human rights abusers will actually get a little bit more of a backbone when it comes to standing up to them."

The United States will have to walk a tightrope between its desire for reform of the council and the danger that its very participation will add legitimacy to a body that could conceivably continue its downward slide in the human rights arena, Patrick says.

"[The council] has a rather weak approach to actually advancing human rights around the world," Patrick adds. "And not only a weak approach but actually enabling and strengthening the hands of those whose main motivation for actually being in the council is to sabotage its work as opposed to bring it to fruition."

According to the mandate given to the council by the UN General Assembly, the council shall review its work and functioning five years after its establishment and report back to the assembly.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice says Washington will urge that the review of council policies by the General Assembly -- currently slated for April 2011 -- be undertaken as soon as possible.