(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration claimed a victory for American leadership at the U.N. Human Rights Council after 56 countries – less than one-third of the total U.N. membership – supported a statement critical of Iran’s human rights record.
The declaration, timed to coincide with the anniversary of last June’s disputed presidential election, was read out at the Geneva-based council on Tuesday.
As is the case in the U.N. Security Council, HRC statements do not carry the weight of formal resolutions.
Still, Iran had tried to block the move on procedural grounds, arguing that country-specific statements were not appropriate under the agenda item under consideration. Allies China and Pakistan said they were troubled by the practice of “naming and shaming,” and Iran also won support from countries including Nigeria, Egypt, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, Sudan, Syria and North Korea.
But the council president ruled the statement could go ahead, and it was read out by Norway’s ambassador, Bente Angell-Hansen.
Among other things, the statement expressed concern about “the violent suppression of dissent, detention and executions without due process of law, severe discrimination against women and minorities including people of Baha'i faith, and restrictions of expression and religion.”
It said that Iranians “whose universal human rights have been violated must know that their voices are being heard by this council and that we in the international community are working together to try to respond to their needs and to improve their lives.”
In fact, only 16 of the HRC’s 47 members – 34 percent – agreed to support the statement read by Angell-Hansen. They were joined by another 40 countries which are not currently council members. Together, the 56 states comprise 29 percent of the total U.N. membership of 192.
The HRC was set up four years ago as a “reformed” successor to the 60-year-old U.N. Commission for Human Rights, which critics said had become increasingly discredited by the presence and conduct of countries with poor rights records.
Since then, the new body has passed a total of 59 resolutions relating to specific countries, none of them dealing with Iran.
Thirty of the 59 resolutions relate to Israel, eight to Burma, seven to Sudan, three each to North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, two to Cambodia, and one each to Burundi, Guinea and Honduras – according to statistics maintained by the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project.
‘Strong cross-regional coalition’
During Tuesday’s session, U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said the U.S. was “very proud” of the coalition supporting the statement, noting that it represented all five regional groups at the U.N.
While correct, that assertion does not tell the whole story. Of the 56 countries backing the statement, 44 were in the Western or Eastern European groups, and another six in Latin America.
Only two countries in Africa – out of a total of 53 – supported the statement, and neither of them (Liberia, the Maldives) is a member of the HRC. Asia also has 53 member states in the U.N., but only four – HRC member Japan along with Timor-Leste, Tonga and Vanuatu – backed the statement.
The Obama administration has been keen to demonstrate that it was right to join the council a year ago, after its predecessor shunned it since its establishment in 2006.
“What I hope you will take away from this moment, first and foremost, is that U.S. leadership at the Human Rights Council matters,” Donahoe told reporters after the session.
“I am very proud that the United States and our partners were able to build on strong partnerships to forge a strong cross-regional coalition in support of this statement,” she said.
“American engagement and leadership matters at the Human Rights Council. Without U.S. engagement here we leave a vacuum of leadership, which will get filled by the priorities of others.”
A major criticism of the HRC, and one of the reasons the Bush administration gave for voting against the resolution establishing it, is that it is not designed to ensure that the most suitable countries – those with strong records of upholding human rights – fill its ranks.
Instead, as with other U.N. bodies, membership is carved up into the five regional groups recognized by the world body.
At any one time, only seven of the 47 seats are held by members of the Western group, but 26 seats – a majority – are occupied by Asian and African countries. Latin America gets eight seats and Eastern Europe six.
When the U.S. was voted onto the council last year, its victory did not increase the proportion of members that have strong human rights records. Rather, the May 2009 election saw the U.S., Belgium and Norway replace three similarly-inclined democracies, Canada, Switzerland and Germany.
Overall, that election saw just 23 council members meet the criteria for “free” countries, according to democracy watchdog Freedom House. This year’s election – held last month and marked by success for Libya – saw the proportion of “free” countries drop even further, to 20.
The inherent flaw – council membership divided according to regional group rather than based in any enforceable way on strict human rights norms – is compounded by a lack of competition, regional endorsements and vote-trading.
Scores of non-governmental organizations from around the world have complained about this in letters sent to U.N. member states ahead of HRC elections.
But the problems continue: In last month’s election, all five regional groups put forward “closed slates” – the same number of candidates as there were vacancies.
In her comments to the press, Donahoe voiced optimism about the HRC’s potential.
“Today’s success in the Human Rights Council is a testament to the multiple dimensions of U.S. leadership, as well as the very strong partnerships we have with other leaders throughout the world,” she said.
“The joint statement also provides a hint of what is possible in the future of this council in terms of its ability to address the most pressing human rights matters in real time, in a cross regional and constructive manner.”