Obama Administration’s Claim to Have Improved U.N. Human Rights Council Faces Test

By Patrick Goodenough | August 28, 2012 | 4:36 AM EDT

Human Rights Council delegates request the floor during a panel discussion in Geneva on March 7, 2012. (UN Photo by Violaine Martin)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s repeated claims that its support for the U.N. Human Rights Council has proven worthwhile faces a test in the fall as it decides whether to exert diplomatic pressure in an effort to prevent governments with poor human rights records from joining the body. Or it could stand back and allows them to take their seats.

The U.S. agrees that the composition of the Geneva-based HRC, based on the U.N.’s customary “equitable geographical distribution,” is a major flaw.

Despite the mandate to elect only countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” some of the world’s most repressive regimes have won seats on the 47-member body, mostly as a result of “closed slates” – regional groups putting forward the same number of candidates as there are vacancies available.

This fall’s election will give the administration an opportunity to show whether it will do anything about it. The U.N. General Assembly in New York is scheduled to elect new HRC members on November 12.

While the U.S. itself is running for a new term, so are Sudan, Venezuela and Pakistan, and in each of their regional groups – Africa, Latin America and Asia – there is currently no competition.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) since early 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the conflict in Darfur. Genocide charges were added in 2010.

Yet the Africa group has endorsed the Bashir regime along with four other countries (Sierra Leone, Gabon, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire) for the five Africa seats up for grabs.

African human rights campaigners last month urged African nations to withdraw their endorsement of Sudan as well as Ethiopia, citing “the poor performance of their governments on protecting human rights.” The appeal was made on the eve of an African Union summit, but the nominations stand.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also has a poor human rights record at home and has used his vote at the U.N. to back allies like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The Latin America and Caribbean group has approved Venezuela and two others (Brazil and Argentina) for the region’s three vacant seats.

Pakistan, a current HRC member, has used its seat in recent years to spearhead the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s bid to outlaw “religious defamation,” while enforcing some of the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws at home.

The Asia group has endorsed Pakistan and three others (Japan, Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates) for five seats available for Asia in the November election. The final nominee remains undecided.

A leading congressional critic of the U.N., House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said on Monday tht Sudan’s likely elevation onto the HRC marked “a new low” for the world body.

“Allowing this genocidal dictatorship, which has killed thousands of its citizens, to serve on such a body is beyond hypocrisy, it is callous, dangerous, and tragic,” she said. “It is beyond apparent that the U.N. is broken.”

Earlier, Ros-Lehtinen also commented on Venezuela’s candidacy, describing it as “a dictatorship … which models itself after Fidel Castro.”

“The Obama administration should stop making excuses for the U.N. Human Rights Council, which remains as dictator-friendly as ever, despite three years of U.S. membership and funding,” she said.

Mixed record

Previous attempts by Western democracies to deny abusers seats on the HRC have been mixed.

In the spring of 2009, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba all won three-year terms, but the Obama administration was then just a few months old and was only itself voted onto the council that year. (China obtained the same number of votes as the United States, while Cuba got just four votes fewer than the U.S. and Saudi Arabia only 13 fewer.)

“Obviously there will always be some countries whose respect and record on human rights is sub-par,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said after that vote, adding, “We have not been perfect ourselves, but we intend to lead based on the strong, principled vision that the American people have about respecting human rights, supporting democracy.”

In 2010, Libya’s Gadaffi regime won a seat on a closed slate. Iran was also in the running, but the Asia group persuaded Tehran to withdraw, in exchange for an unimpeded path to a seat on another U.N. rights body, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

The Obama administration later took credit for denying Iran an HRC seat, although it went along with the trade-off and did not oppose Iran getting the CSW position.

Last year Syria sought an HRC seat but as the conflict there worsened the Asia group withdrew its backing, putting up Kuwait instead. In a bid to save face, the Assad regime said it and Kuwait had merely swapped predetermined slots and Syria would run in 2014 instead.

If the U.S. does decide to work against any candidacies this year, there are several options available:

--It could publicly urge regional groups to retract endorsements, although the chances of success would be minimal.

--It could work behind the scenes to appeal to regional groups to persuade the countries to withdraw. Success here would also be unlikely, given the African Union’s support for Bashar in the face of the ICC indictment; Venezuela’s leftist support-base in its region; and Pakistan’s powerful allies including China and Asian Muslim states.

--The U.S. could persuade undeclared countries to enter, thus raising the possibility of Sudan, Venezuela and Pakistan being outvoted. But few countries would want to risk criticism and unpopularity by defying their regional caucus.

--Finally, the U.S. could lobby to deny a country – even on a clean slate – with the required number of votes, a development that would allow new candidates to step forward. But success only requires a simple majority – 97 votes in the 192-member General Assembly – rather than the two-thirds majority which the Bush administration pushed for back in 2005 when the U.N. was constructing its new human rights body.

More than 140 lawmakers, all Republicans, cosponsored Ros-Lehtinen’s U.N. Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act (H.R. 2829), which would change the way the U.N. is funded, allowing the U.S. to fund selectively and so compel reforms – including reforms directly targeting the HRC.

The bill was reported favorably by the House Foreign Affairs Committee but failed to advance.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow