Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced, to the glee of most human rights groups, that it would reverse a three year policy of the Bush administration and seek a seat on the 47-nation United Nations Human Rights Council to “make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights.”
The elections are currently taking place in the U.N. General Assembly, but suspense is minimal. Only Africa and Eastern Europe offered the U.N. General Assembly a democratic choice by having more candidates than open seats. Other regions offered “clean slates” with only enough candidates to fill open slots. Thus, the U.S. is virtually assured of election to the council because the Western European and Others Group (the U.S. is an “other”) offered only three candidates for three open seats on the Council. Also assured of election are China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and other states with poor human-rights records.
In the abstract, it may seem that having the U.S. on the council would help offset these counterproductive elements. The U.S. is a powerful and outspoken champion of human rights and can be expected to assert its views in the council.
Unfortunately, having an American representative is unlikely to improve the council’s dismal record. U.S. efforts will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Regional dynamics of council seat quotas — 13 for Asia, 13 for Africa, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean, 7 for Western European and Other States (or WEOG), and 6 for Eastern Europe — largely assure that states hostile to human rights will dominate the agenda of the council in 2009 as they have in the past three years.
While there is much to be said for engagement, engagement itself must not be a goal. You must have a reasonable expectation of success arising from that engagement. There is no such reason in this case. No one country, not even the U.S., can change the downward trajectory of the council. It must have allies.
Without serious and strict membership standards, the council will continue to disappoint. As it stands, the best the U.S. can hope for as a member of the council is improvement at the margins, such as offering resolutions doomed to failure simply to raise the issue for discussion. If the Obama administration truly wishes to make the council effective, it should immediately turn its focus to pressing for vital membership criteria for the council in the review due by 2011.