A Sham Engagement
The U.S. participates in a human-rights travesty.


Anne Bayefsky

Engagement — the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy — is currently making its debut in the heart of the U.N. human-rights world in Geneva. And U.S. diplomats have become sitting ducks on a firing range.

U.S. representatives are participating, for the first time, in a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. This is the second half of a policy decision that the administration unveiled a week ago: The U.S. would attend the Council, but remain on the sidelines in the U.N.’s Durban II “anti-racism” conference.

Obama’s real agenda is to join the Council as a full member. Elections take place in May, and the campaign to get the U.S. to run has now reached fever pitch. Rooting for this is a motley crew of current Council members and human-rights lowlifes pining for good-guy credentials, together with U.N. personnel, State Department officials, U.S.-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, and NGO representatives.

The Council is the U.N.’s lead human-rights body. It was created back in 2006 out of the ruins of the U.N. Human Rights Commission (once chaired by Libya). At the time, the U.S. proposed making the actual protection of human rights a criterion for membership in the “reformed” agency. When the idea was rejected as a gross interference with the entitlements of human-rights abusers, the U.S. refused to participate in or to pay for the Council — until, that is, the arrival of President Obama.

Understanding the Council is a no-brainer. It is divided into five regional groups, with the African and Asian regional groups together forming the majority. The Islamic bloc holds the balance of power because it has successfully elected a majority to each of the African and Asian regional groups. The Western bloc controls a mere 7 of 47 seats. Current membership boasts such human-rights stalwarts as Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba.

Electioneering is in the air, and U.S. officials apparently have instructions to grin and bear it. The State Department announcement justifying the U.S. participation claimed: “We . . . will do more to . . . advance human rights if we are part of the conversation.” That would assume that the conversation was about advancing human rights, not setting them back. Under the newly minted U.S. engagement strategy, here is some of what has passed for human-rights conversation at the Council over the past week:

Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki called for the elimination of “the illegitimate Zionist regime” and support for “the legitimate resistance . . . of Hamas.” He also declared that “in accordance with its Constitution . . . Iran makes every effort to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” That would be the same constitution that allows stoning, amputation, and the murder of homosexuals for the crime of existing.

Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission chairman, Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aban, told those assembled at the Council that “the kingdom continues a consistent policy of promoting and consolidating principles of justice and equality among all members of society.” He didn’t mention that last week another Saudi woman was arrested for being behind the wheel of a car.

The Egyptian minister for legal and parliamentary councils, Mufid Shehab, said it was paramount that “freedom of expression should not lead to abuse of religions and religious standpoints. . . . Societies should be obliged to punish acts of free expression when they damage the rights of others. . . . Opinions cannot be expressed freely if this affects . . . religious sensibilities.”

Cuba’s justice minister, Maria Esther Reus González, ranted about U.S. “plans for global domination,” “wars of pillage and conquest,” and “twenty long years . . . of blockade and aggression.” (A Council decision of 2006 takes Cuba’s human-rights record permanently off the table.)