Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

Obama Joins Human-Rights Charade

Thursday, April 2, 2009

This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared in National Review Online.

President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time. The formal election of new members is in May, but the result is a foregone conclusion. The human-rights abusers who dominate the Council and use it to protect themselves, to eliminate universal standards, and to demonize their democratic foes are already celebrating.

This is a surrender of American values unlike any other. The spectacle of this particular president legitimizing a lethal weapon for the defeat of human rights will haunt him until the end of his term.

The Council was created in March 2006 after the U.N. Human Rights Commission became too much of an embarrassment even for the U.N. The General Assembly rejected a U.S. proposal requiring that states actually protect human rights as a condition of Council membership. As a result, the United States voted against the Assembly resolution that gave it birth.

The Bush administration also refused to use taxpayer dollars to pay for the Council. Obama's move will reverse this policy. It is, therefore, important to appreciate exactly what American tax dollars will now be purchasing. Here is a sample of what the Council has "accomplished" over its short history.

  • The Council has adopted a formal agenda of ten items that governs all its meetings. One agenda item is reserved for condemning Israel. This item is called the "human-rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories"; the human rights of Israelis are deliberately omitted. And one agenda item is assigned to the human rights of the remaining 99.9 percent of the world's population. By taking a seat on the Council, the United States will be agreeing to this agenda and to the resulting apportionment of the Council's time.

  • Every morning throughout the Council sessions, all U.N. member states meet to strategize and share information in one of the U.N.'s five regional groups. All that is, except Israel. At the Council, Israel is denied membership in any regional group, including the amalgam of Western states to which the United States belongs. The United States is, therefore, about to attend a continuous stream of meetings through doors effectively marked "no representatives of the Jewish people allowed."

  • The Council has had ten regular sessions concerning human rights worldwide and five special sessions to condemn Israel.

  • The Council has adopted more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all the other 191 U.N. member states combined.

  • The Council has terminated human-rights investigations of such paragons as Belarus, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia.

  • The last time the Council took action on Sudan was seven months ago. The resolution on that country "acknowledges . . . the steps taken by the Government of the Sudan to strengthen the human-rights legal and institutional framework, principally in law reform." (The Sudanese criminal code prohibits homosexuality, makes adultery a capital offense, and provides for flogging, amputation, stoning, and crucifixion.)

  • The Council has just terminated every investigation of "consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms." Under this heading, it has discontinued investigations of the likes of Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Even the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission had investigations under way every year since this process began in 1974.

  • The Council president has made a procedural ruling that any commentary connecting the practice of Islam to human-rights violations is out of order.

  • The Council has sabotaged the key resolution in the U.N. system on freedom of expression. The resolution now requires investigation of "abuses of the right of freedom of expression" . Most Council members do not permit freedom of expression, much less suffer from the abuse of it.

  • The Council regularly adopts resolutions on the "defamation of religions," an overt attempt by Islamic states to stymie free speech of individuals in the name of protecting "religion."

  • The Council has made repeated efforts to circumvent universal principles. It has spawned numerous entities charged with searching for "normative gaps" - with the intention of filling them with sharia exemption clauses.

  • The Council has created an investigator charged with reporting on respect for "cultural diversity" (read: the refusal to hold Islamic states to universal standards of human rights). Not surprisingly, this plan was spearheaded by some of the worst human-rights abusers on the planet: Iran, Syria, Cuba, China, North Korea, Venezuela, and Belarus.

  • The Council's one new device - the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) - was heralded as introducing a careful examination of all U.N. states without discrimination. What actually happens is that a series of human-rights abusers congratulate one another, avoid any serious scrutiny, and then denigrate the democracies that agreed to the travesty in the first place.

  • It is true that some human-rights groups are willing to admit there is a problem with the Human Rights Council. But they still insist that Obama's decision to participate in this sham raises the prospect of change from the inside. They are mistaken.

    Serious reform of the U.N. Human Rights Council is impossible. The United States failed to win over a majority of U.N. members to the idea of minimal preconditions for Council membership because the majority of U.N. members are not fully free democracies and have no interest in introducing democratic hurdles for anything they do. On the Council itself, the majority of seats are held by the African and Asian regional groups, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has a majority in both of these groups. That means the OIC holds the balance of power. The more time the Council spends demonizing Israel, the less likely it becomes that it will ever get around to condemning genocide in Sudan, female slavery in Saudi Arabia, or torture in Egypt.

    President Obama's decision to bring the United States into the Council is a gift for his political adversaries. The Council and its many subsidiary bodies meet almost year round, and many of their proceedings are webcast. Every time the president makes a speech about human dignity, the welfare of minorities, the equality of women, or an end to torture, his critics can circulate another picture of the hapless American representative to the Council glued to his chair during the adoption of yet another decision trashing human rights - with the United States paying the bill.

    Human-rights victims will rue the day that the United States legitimized this morally bankrupt institution. President Obama will, too.