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Human Rights Reform in the Air

Author: Robert McMahon, Managing Editor
updated: March 15


It has become a late-winter ritual. The United States releases its annual report card on human rights around the world every year at this time and then sends a delegation to Geneva to battle in the UN Human Rights Commission, where states it has severely criticized are in abundance. But this year the dynamic has changed. While the U.S. report drew familiar complaints from China and Cuba, it was also criticized by the prominent rights watchdog Amnesty International for hypocrisy. Coverage of the rights survey had to compete with reports on U.S. force-feeding of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which UN officials are calling on Washington to close (CNN).

The United States has found itself alone in pushing for a more robust reform of the UN rights commission. On March 15, it cast one of the few dissenting votes (Reuters) in a 170-4 UN General Assembly vote creating a new Human Rights Council. The new council will have a higher status than the commission it will replace, and is to be a subsidiary body of the General Assembly. Meeting year-round as opposed to the six-week annual session of the commission, its members are to be elected by a majority of all 191 UN Members. Barry Lowenkron, the U.S. assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor, told, Washington was worried that it is still possible for the most egregious violators of human rights to gain membership in the council.

Although it voted against the proposal, Ambassador John Bolton said the United States would still cooperate with the council to make it as effective as possible. This might not be enough to satisfy the U.S. Congress, which has threatened to withhold UN funding if rights reforms did not go far enough (WashPost). A congressional subcommittee responsible for human rights issues is expected to discuss the matter March 16. Despite U.S. objections, top UN officials, Nobel peace laureates, and a number of democratic states have come out in favor of the new council as an improvement on the discredited commission, which is described in this CFR Background Q&A. Former President Jimmy Carter, speaking recently at CFR in New York, conceded the shortfalls of the reforms but blasted the Bush administration for subverting the process.

But Washington also has its supporters for pressing human rights issues. They include civil society activists in countries like China and Egypt as well as some highly regarded rights watchdog organizations. The group Freedom House, for example, has backed the U.S. push for a stronger UN rights council. The co-chairs of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on UN Reform, Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell, also found the proposed rights council inadequate. Among their concerns: that it would be tougher to remove human rights violators from the council (IHT) than to vote them on.

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