U.S. Runs for Human Rts Council Seat But Durban II Still a No Go

9 04 2009

Last week, the  Obama administration announced it would run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in the next round of elections, a body that President Bush avoided and ignored.

In a press statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice referred to a need “for the Council to be balanced and credible” an explained that the U.S. is running for a the open seat because “we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council.”

Throughout the Bush years, U.N.-U.S. relations were always frosty to put it mildly.  Bush hardly felt comfortable around liberal internationalists of the American variety much less those from other countries steeped in global affairs. But his hostility toward the U.N. only hardened in the run up to the Iraq war where he failed to amass support for the March 2003 invasion. As early as the August 2003, President Bush alienated potential U.N. involvement in the creation of an Iraqi central government.

Of course, Dubya and company soon changed their minds once the Iraqi insurgency got going and the U.S. military found itself lacking the knowledge and skills for diffusing a post-conflict situation already cultivated by the U.N. peacekeeping and diplomatic corp.

But such a change of heart even if it was for out of desperation never extended to the Council, given how it was populated by some of the worse human rights abusers such as Sudan, Libya, and Cuba, who were eager to pass resolutions condemning Israel while also blocking scrutiny of treatment of their own citizens. To be fair, this is a problem that has vexed some of the most clear-eyed supporters of the U.N.

The legacy of that sort of politicization of the Council’s mission remains a huge problem even after the round of reforms in 2006, which dissolved the Human Rights Commission that was established in 1946.  The 06 reforms also nearly assured representation from some of the most repressive governments by allotting seats seats to countries based on regional blocs as opposed to a record of improvement.

That’s enough for critics of the Council, particularly Rice’s neoconservative predecessor John Bolton, believe the rights body is too fatally flawed and ineffective to warrant participation from the U.S. Never one to mince words former Ambassador Bolton reportedly told the New York Times, “You don’t show up at every ragtag little organization that comes into existence”.


Though its easy to dismiss Bolton’s criticism as shortsighted and irascible, it does evince a certain view of American power that still persists today in some quarters. The prestige of American power should not be diminished by engaging flawed institutions that provide cover to our adversaries. The world is against the U.S. and we must assert our influence whenever possible to ensure its power is preserved at worst and extended at best.

But hasn’t Bolton been paying attention? Our standing in the world has diminished as a result of human rights abuses during the Bush era. Torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo has done more to aid America’s detractors looking to deflect attention from their own human rights record as their criticize the U.S. and do so effectively.  One of the ways to counter these charges is to join the Human Rights Council and make sure that a proper comparison is made between the U.S and other countries on the Council, including the Sudans, Cubas, and Libyas of the world.

That said, the Obama administration is not going to participate in any U.N. forum even if it is human rights related. Consider U.N.’s upcoming conference on racism otherwise known as Durban II. The administration still won’t participate in it even though the latest agenda, or the outcome document, has been purged of nearly all of the things that it said it could not accept namely, references to reparations, strong criticisms of Israel, and severe limitations on freedom of expression.

Perhaps some may think that the U.S. sought to run for the Council seat as a way to placate critics for not participating in Durban II, but that’s a cynical misreading of the situation. As early as late January the administration was pondering joining the Human Rights Council.

The administration really fears that the whole affair will deteriorate into an anti-Israeli and anti-Western hate fest led by certain countries within the Organization of Islamic Conference. Its not an altogether irrational fear, but a very compelling one nonetheless.

Joining the Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction in overcoming that fear.




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