Righting the Wrongs of the UN’s Top Human Rights Body

The election of the United States to the much criticized UN Human Rights Council must be used by Washington to help revive the UN’s entire rights architecture, writes CFR’s Kara McDonald.

May 12, 2009

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To date, the debate surrounding the three-year-old UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has focused largely on its anti-Israeli bias and whether the United States should run for membership. The Bush administration argued that the HRC’s first years were enough to demonstrate that it is no more credible than its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, and that membership would legitimate the body’s work. With a permanent agenda item resulting in twenty-one resolutions against Israel and little or no substantive work on any of the most egregious human rights abusers, it’s hard to defend the council’s record. The Obama administration, which has stressed diplomatic engagement, decided that the United States cannot be absent from the UN’s premier human rights body and should seek to improve its record from within. The UN General Assembly’s May 12 election of the United States to a three-year term is a potential first step, but absent a comprehensive strategy to reform the UN’s human rights architecture, including the scheduled reappraisal of the HRC itself, U.S. membership will become a sideshow.

The HRC was created in 2006 to replace the UN Human Rights Commission, a body widely discredited as a "coalition of abusers." The United States took a lead role in negotiating the successor body, but voted against the resolution creating the HRC due in part to continued concern about the ability of rights-abusing states to become members. Despite the checkered history of the UN’s human rights bodies, founding human rights instruments like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are a positive legacy, and continue to provide a vision for the work of the UN’s human rights bodies.

What Can Membership in the HRC Achieve?

Some rights watchdogs believe that the United States, by its long-standing authority on human rights issues, will be able to sway the work of the HRC toward more serious human rights review. This is unlikely for two reasons.  First, the perception that the United States holds a unique authority in human rights issues is largely defunct due to ongoing questions related to its recent interrogation and detention practices. The U.S. government should be prepared for heavy criticism of its own human rights record during upcoming HRC sessions and the Universal Periodic Review to which all members are subject during their tenure.

"Absent a comprehensive strategy to reform the UN’s human rights architecture, including the scheduled reappraisal of the HRC itself, U.S. membership will become a sideshow.”

Second, the composition of the HRC is weighted toward Africa and Asia regional bloc dominance; these blocs together hold twenty-six votes, a majority on the body of forty-seven, and they have clearly demonstrated an avoidance of rights oversight and support for singling out Israel. Bloc voting provides states mutual protection from human rights criticism. It is therefore hard to imagine this HRC conducting any serious human rights review. It is true that the United States as a member will be able to request special sessions, which only require one-third of the membership’s support, and to call for votes. This may afford some increased action (statements, resolutions, and special sessions) on rights-abusing states like Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Myanmar. While not irrelevant, these successes will be of only marginal gain as long as governments can continue to block scrutiny of their own rights records. So what else can membership achieve?

Navigating Reforms

The administration must devise a comprehensive and long-term approach to its goals for the UN’s human rights architecture. This approach should include the following elements:

  • Name as a matter of urgency an experienced ambassador to the U.S. mission in Geneva and push for quick Senate confirmation. The administration’s mantra of a "new era of engagement" will be judged by how effective its engagements are. Engagement must produce results.  Undertaking new membership in the HRC without a high-level ambassador leading the charge will result in the United States being outmaneuvered by regional ringleaders like Egypt, South Africa, and Pakistan.
  • Begin a high-level dialogue with human rights allies to forge a common vision for the UN’s human rights apparatus and a strategy to achieve it in coming years. The first step toward systemic change is the mandated review by 2011 of the HRC. The U.S. government should orient its strategy toward preparing the ground, cultivating the expertise necessary, and building relationships for the upcoming battle to document honestly the HRC’s deficiencies and to build consensus for change.
  • Develop as part of this comprehensive approach a strategy to secure the support of like-minded countries on the HRC and to engage moderate members of the Asia and Africa blocs through bilateral relationships in capitals.
  • Focus on ways to decrease the predominance of regional dynamics. One option would be the introduction of secret balloting to allow countries to vote their conscience rather than as pressured by others in their region. An examination of lessons learned from other multilateral and UN bodies that are independent of voting bloc politics, such as the UN Peacebuilding Commission, may also provide suggestions for how to reform the HRC.
  • Examine the role of other human rights bodies at the United Nations. The United States should consider how to preserve the independence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and increase its in-country monitoring and technical assistance. It should also strategize how to raise the regional and international security implications of gross human rights abusers in the UN Security Council.

To secure the investment of U.S. membership in the HRC, the administration must move quickly to devise a plan to resurrect the vision and energy of the UN’s founding human rights mandate. A successful revamping of the UN human rights architecture would reassure those concerned about the direction of this administration’s engagement with repressive states, prove that engagement as a policy can produce results, and demonstrate the administration’s commitment to rights as a foreign policy priority.


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