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A Glass Half-Full

Author: Ryan Kaminski, Senior Program Manager for Human Rights, United Nations Foundation
September 16, 2011


As the UN General Assembly convenes for its 66th session this week in New York, it has at least one thing to celebrate. Namely, its 2006 decision to replace the hapless UN Commission on Human Rights with the UN Human Rights Council. Despite some notable exceptions, the UNHRC has shown remarkable progress in its five-year existence, and should be afforded more time to continue its institutional development, implement its mandate and pursue targeted reform.

During its relatively limited tenure, the UNHRC has broken ground in a variety of areas. This includes passing an unprecedented resolution on preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, suspending a former member - Libya - for its human rights record, and condemning the recent crackdown in Syria.

Regardless of all of this, disapproval of the UNHRC dies hard in the United States.

During its inception, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton called the UNHRC a "caterpillar in lipstick." Two weeks ago, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, introduced legislation that if enacted would effectively ban the United States from participating in the UNHRC and eliminate its funding.

Time and time again, however, criticism of the new UN human rights organ has been, at best, half-baked. For example, the UNHRC is routinely chastised for including states from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which either have troubling human rights records or cultural beliefs significantly at odds with those of the West. But rarely do people consider what legitimacy a human rights group restricted to a coterie of Western states that condemn other countries' rights records could really expect to have.

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