Politics & Policy

Flawed Council

What has U.S. “engagement” with the Human Rights Council accomplished?

On November 12, the United States was elected to a second three-year term on the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). The Obama administration portrays this as a vindication of its policy of multilateral “engagement.” That approach, it says, has yielded a number of “accomplishments.” Unfortunately, the claim is more spin than reality.

In fact, the administration’s efforts to influence the council have been quite modest. It boasts, for example, of renewing the mandates for special rapporteurs for Burma and North Korea and an Independent Expert for Human Rights in Sudan. But these mandates had been extended by the council before the U.S. joined it.

What about the U.S. “achievements” of helping to pass resolutions or hold special sessions on Kyrgyzstan, Guinea, and Tunisia? These were low-hanging fruit — condemning the actions of a government no longer in power or praising the actions of a new government.

What of the loudly hailed Universal Periodic Review? It is less a stringent examination than a human-rights kabuki dance. Many countries submit disingenuous or baldly false reports, which the HRC duly accepts.

#ad#Yes, there have been a few legitimate accomplishments, such as the appointment of special rapporteurs for human rights in Iran and Syria. Yet even those efforts have not improved the human-rights situations in those countries. Meanwhile, the HRC has turned a steadfastly blind eye toward dozens of other countries — notably China and Cuba — with deplorable human-rights records. No special sessions, dedicated experts, or strong condemnatory resolutions for those bad actors. Instead, biased treatment is endemic. As UN Watch and Eye on the UN have noted, nearly 40 percent of the HRC’s country-specific human-rights criticisms and condemnations are aimed at Israel.

If ever there was a time for the Obama administration to exert its influence, it was during the mandatory review of the HRC in 2011. That was a real opportunity to enact membership standards and other reforms needed to make the council effective. Because of a lack of standards, any country — even those with deplorable records, like Sudan — is eligible for membership. Another problem is the way members are elected. The 47 seats on the council are allocated by geographic region — 13 each for Asia and Africa, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 for Eastern Europe, and 7 for the Western and Others Group, which includes the United States. Regional groups frequently game the system to facilitate their members’ candidacies by nominating only the same number of candidates as there are open seats. This practice, referred to as offering a “clean slate,” maximizes the chances for each candidate to receive the 97 votes (a majority of the 193 member states in the General Assembly) necessary to win a seat. In essence, without competition, candidates are virtually assured of getting enough support to win a seat.

The mandatory review revealed the true limitations of U.S. engagement. Nearly all the substantive reform proposals — including U.S. proposals to establish stronger criteria for candidates and require regions to offer competitive slates — were rejected. As a result, the lack of meaningful membership standards is likely to remain permanent.

Unsurprisingly, countries with human-rights records ranging from bad to terrible — Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela — were also elected to the HRC on November 12. Each received more votes than the United States. According to Freedom House’s rankings, the HRC in 2013 will have fewer “free” countries than “partly free” or “not free” countries with serious human-rights failings.

This imbalance persists even though “not free” countries like China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia must cycle off the HRC for one year after serving two consecutive terms. Look for the HRC to reach new lows in 2014 when those nations return.

The Obama administration’s efforts over the past three years are best described as damage control. They have shifted, marginally, some HRC decisions and resolutions in a positive direction and mitigated some of the council’s worst tendencies — toward bias against Israel, for example, and willful inattention to serious human-rights violations. While these actions are desirable, they are a far cry from the administration’s stated goal, which is “to strengthen and reform the Human Rights Council and enable it to live up to the vision that was crafted when it was created.”

The last three years have vindicated not the Obama administration’s approach, but the Bush administration’s. Under President Bush, the U.S. voted against creating the HRC because basic reforms and membership standards were not enacted to prevent it from following in the footsteps of the organization it replaced, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). In the words of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the old UNCHR “cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”

Unfortunately, the record shows that the council has inherited the commission’s failings along with its responsibilities. To paraphrase former U.S. ambassador John Bolton, for the Obama administration to present a list of “accomplishments” in the council is like putting lipstick on a caterpillar and calling it a butterfly. What meager success the U.S. has had within the council chambers is not nearly enough to justify lending the prestige of our presence to such a flawed body.

— Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. 

Brett D. SchaeferBrett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

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