Obama’s U.N. Debacle
The Obama administration’s big hopes of reforming the Human Rights Council from within are in shreds.


Anne Bayefsky

In all, the U.N. reports that 42 proposals were put forward by the American delegation orally and in writing. Only three were accepted. Those three addressed minutiae. For instance, the Obama team proposed allowing all states that wish to speak during the council’s “universal periodic review” (UPR) to be permitted to do so. The UPR is the procedure in which the council considers the human-rights record of every state, but the council tightly controls the time spent on each country. Council members are allotted three minutes’ and non-members two minutes’ worth of comments, regardless of the scope of the issues. Since the total time is fixed, would-be commentators are frequently silenced by ending up too low on the speakers’ list. The “reform” that was proposed and accepted? Keep the total time the same and reduce the allotted time per speaker. Thirty-second critiques of human-rights abuses, here we come.

Instead of admitting their complete inability to accomplish their mission of reforming the council, however, Obama’s representatives are scrambling to sweep the disaster under the rug. Admitting their error would no doubt strike at the heart of the president’s U.N. chorus line.

On March 31, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice announced that the U.S. would seek to join the council “because we believe that working from within, we can make the Council a more effective forum,” and because “the Council . . . is scheduled to undergo a formal review of its structure and procedures in 2011, which will offer a significant opportunity for Council reform.” In a New York Times op-ed on Sept. 13, 2010, Eileen Donahoe — the United States’ ambassador to the council — called the review “a serious self-reflection exercise” and claimed that “if 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.”

Now we know there was no “serious self-reflection.” U.S. values and priorities have not been reflected in the outcome. The reform opportunity is in shreds.

The result leaves the administration with two choices. Choice number one: Admit the fiasco. Refuse to lend legitimacy to a highly discriminatory agency designed to help members such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba conceal their own abuses. And get out. Choice number two: Allow a bogus “reform” to be adopted by consensus, and stay put.

President Obama has evidently decided to take the second course, sending one more signal about how little he values Israel and how few are the number of human-rights victims around the world that stand any chance of capturing his attention.

— Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, director of the Touro College Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, and the editor of