U.N. Human Rights Council Rejects U.S. Attempts to ‘Improve It From Within’

By Patrick Goodenough | June 21, 2011 | 5:31am EDT

The Human Rights Council meets at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, in the Palais des Nations. (Photo: UNOG)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration highlighted its “accomplishments” at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday – the same day as the world body’s General Assembly rubber-stamped a five-year “review” of HRC practices that rejected key U.S. recommendations aimed at fixing its flaws.

A leading critic of the U.N. in the U.S. Congress called Monday for the administration to leave the council and direct its energies towards “developing credible alternative forums to advance the cause of human rights.”

Ever since the administration reversed President Bush’s policy and joined the HRC in 2009 with the stated intention of strengthening it “from within,” it has cited the review process as the tool it intends to use to improve the Geneva-based body.

Around the time the lengthy review process began last fall, U.S. ambassador to the HRC Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe expressed optimism that the U.S. would use it to stamp its authority on the council.

“[I]f we do not sit at the table with others and do the work necessary to influence the process, U.S. values and priorities will not be reflected in the outcome,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“Some erroneously argue that the council’s failings prove the task is too difficult, that it is a waste of time and resources, and we should pack up and go home,” Donahoe continued. “This perspective reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of our role and belies a lack of confidence in the power of U.S. leadership. Now, more than ever, as it engages in a full review of its practices, the council needs robust U.S. participation.”

Others were far less ambitious, however, and were ready to apply the brakes. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, for instance, insisted from the outset that the review should go no further than “fine-tune” the council’s operations.

The review process, carried out over eight months of negotiations, formally ended on Friday when a resolution adopting the outcome eased through the General Assembly in New York. Only four countries – the United States, Canada, Israel and Palau – voted “no.”

Some countries grumbled about the fact there was a vote at all, saying “consensus” would have been the preferred outcome. Israel – which alone has been the target of almost half of all country-specific resolutions passed by the HRC – requested a recorded vote.

The 154 countries voting in favor of the resolution included every member of the European Union – despite the fact the E.U. delegate said it was unhappy that the review had missed the opportunity to strengthen the council and overcome some inbuilt weaknesses.

Essentially, the outcome of the review is a victory for countries that are largely satisfied with the way the council has been operating since its establishment in 2006. It keeps intact the body’s lopsided focus on Israel, and the fact that there is no formal bar on council membership for any U.N. member state seeking a seat.

For possibly the next 10-15 years, consequently, there will remain no enforceable criteria for HRC membership. That situation has enabled such candidates as Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Libya to obtain seats with ease, despite widely-criticized human rights records at home. (Libya was suspended last March, but China and Russia insisted that the move did not set a precedent.)

The five-year review also left untouched the fact that Israel is the only country out of 192 that is the subject of a permanent item on the HRC’s agenda. As a result, Israel comes up for discussion at every regular session of the council, irrespective of crises that may be occurring anywhere else in the world.

Both of these issues – the absence of membership criteria and the Israel slant – were contested by the U.S. during the review process, but to no avail.

At Friday’s General Assembly session, U.S. delegate John Sammis deplored the result, saying that the resolution on the table “fails to address the core problems that still plague the Human Rights Council.”

The review should have eliminated the Israel agenda item, to ensure that all member states were “treated on an equal and impartial basis,” he said, adding that the U.S. “will continue to fight to remove this item and the biased and unfair resolutions that flow from it.”

On HRC membership, Sammis expressed dismay that U.S. proposals had been rejected. The U.S. had suggested that the U.N.’s five regional groups should all put up competitive slates when HRC elections are held each May, but “this was rejected out of hand.”

(Currently, most groups have offered “closed slates” most years, submitting the same number of countries as there are seats available for that group. Critics say the absence of competition makes a mockery of the “election” process and is the main reason why unsuitable candidates have won seats.)

The other membership-related proposal put forward by the U.S. during the review process was that every candidate state should, ahead of the election, be required to defend its human rights record – through an “interactive dialogue” with U.N. member states and civil society groups. That recommendation, too, was shot down.

“The council discredits, dishonors, and diminishes itself when the worst violators of human rights have a seat at its table,” Sammis said, adding that membership “should be earned through respect for human rights, not accorded to those who abuse them.”

Nonetheless, he told the gathering that the U.S. would press on.

“When the United States ran for a seat on the council in 2009, we made clear that we did so precisely to strengthen the council from within, through direct and sustained engagement,” he said. “That is what we have done, and that is what we will continue to do.”

‘Small, short-term gains outweighed by big defeats’

In statements and speeches, Obama administration officials have repeatedly touted its efforts at the HRC as a major success story in its policy of deeper engagement with the United Nations. Earlier this year it announced that it would run for a second HRC term when its current one ends in a year’s time.

The State Department issued another fact sheet on the subject on Friday, listing achievements made during the just-completed three-week HRC session in Geneva.

Topping the list was the first-ever resolution at the U.N. condemning discrimination against gays, lesbians and transgender people.

Other accomplishments included statements condemning rights abuses in Syria and Yemen; a statement affirming Internet freedom; and the appointment of a “special rapporteur” to investigate rights abuses in Iran.

The fact sheet did not mention the HRC review.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Monday repeated a call for the U.S. to withdraw from the HRC, saying that the review process had done “nothing to fix the council’s biggest flaws.”

“While U.S. engagement has achieved small, short-term, tactical gains, they have been outweighed by the administration’s defeats on these big, long-term, strategic problems, and by the legitimacy that our participation has granted to the council and its anti-Israel actions,” she said.

“More U.S. participation and funding will not fix the irreparably flawed Human Rights Council. It is long past time for the U.S. to withdraw from the council and devote its energies not to the council, but to developing credible alternative forums to advance the cause of human rights.”

Ros-Lehtinen plans to introduce a bill linking U.S. contributions to the U.N. to reforms, and calling for the U.S. to withdraw from the HRC.

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