If speaking out of both sides of your mouth is a virtue, and if trying to be all things to all people is a wise diplomatic strategy, then Secretary Rice’s stance on the U.N.’s new Human Rights Council was masterful. On Wednesday, the U.S. decided to vote against the adoption of the council in the U.N. General Assembly. The vote was 170 in favor, 4 against (U.S., Israel, Marshall Islands, Palau), and 3 abstentions (Belarus, Iran, Venezuela). The proposal had numerous and serious flaws, bound to have a detrimental effect on the United States, Israel, and the protection of human rights.
The U.S. had an opportunity to make an important statement about the terrible failures of the current Human Rights Commission and the inevitable detrimental consequences for human rights that would result from the new council. Instead, Rice told Ambassador John Bolton to vote no, and then advised Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns to explain to the U.N. General Assembly president and the rest of the world that this vote meant nothing.
Burns spoke to a reporter from the Washington Post at about the same time Ambassador Bolton was voting: “We have very high standards for human rights at the United Nations, and won’t be able to support the proposal because the new institution falls short of those standards. But we also want to see the U.N. succeed…So we’ll look for ways to support with the aim of strengthening it.” The Post’s reporter was sufficiently taken aback as to write: “The move marked a dramatic shift in the U.S. attitude toward Eliasson’s proposal to create a rights council to replace the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights.”
Secretary Rice also instructed Ambassador Bolton not to vote against the financial implications that resulted from the council’s creation. The vote on funding the council took place just prior to the vote on the merits of the deal.
While the brinksmanship was real, it remains doubtful that key members of the European Union, like the United Kingdom–and consequently, Sweden’s President of the General Assembly Jan Eliasson–would have insisted on a vote at this time if the United States had made it clear that our opposition would come with serious consequences.
As it stands, the U.S. wasn’t even able to say in advance whether its negative vote had any implications for its participation. This left Amnesty International (a key supporter of the council whose latest annual report calls Guantanamo the “gulag of our time”) to comment: “It is encouraging to hear that…the U.S. government will cooperate with the council and support it.”
Some members of Congress fail to see the logic in voting against something on a matter of principle while assuring the U.N. there will be no price to pay for pursuing a flawed proposal and ignoring the U.S.’s concerns. One of these members is Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.), chairman of the Congressional human rights committee, who said, “To call what the UN did today ‘reform’ is Orwellian.”
To Secretary Rice and Nicholas Burns , this may look like the best of both worlds. A no vote allows them to say “I told you so” if it goes badly. A refusal to vote against the budget, and letting it be known in advance that U.S. support will continue, avoids criticisms that the U.S. prevented its success.
But the message Secretary Rice has sent is that the U.S. bark is worse than its bite. Vote against the U.S. in the U.N. General Assembly, and there will be no consequences to bear. Stand opposite the U.S. on matters of fundamental principle and U.S. taxpayers will continue to fund your cause.
When the election of the new council takes place in May, and the likes of Cuba and China are back on–the new council does not include a single criterion for membership other than geography–the next line of Rice and Burns is predictable: We’ll just have to cooperate better, work harder, pay more. Even if the U.S. is elected to the new council, the rules require a state to rotate off after serving two terms (a requirement in contrast with the U.S.’s role on the commission for 58 of the past 59 years.) By then Rice may be long gone, but the consequences of her unwillingness to stand up to the bullies at the U.N. will have only just begun.
It remains to be seen whether losing a major vote on U.N. reform means anything more to Congress than it does to the secretary of State.