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Anne Bayefsky

Obama's human rights fiasco

Sunday, April 5, 2009

This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

The U.N. Human Rights Council is a human rights catastrophe. So why did U.S. President Barack Obama decide this week that the United States would join it?

Next month, the council will hold elections, with U.S. membership a foregone conclusion. This means that the United States will soon be sitting down with Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and China to talk about human rights. Not human rights in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and China, mind you. But human rights in Israel and the United States.

The Human Rights Council is the United Nations' lead human rights body. Created in 2006 by the General Assembly as a "reformed" Human Rights Commission, the council has taken the worst elements of its predecessor and magnified them. Former U.S. President George W. Bush decided not to join it after various U.S.-suggested reforms -- such as minimal standards of respect for human rights among member states -- were rejected. Now, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, claims that "working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum." The U.S. State Department speaks of future reform.

In other words, the United States is joining a fundamentally flawed body in order to make it something that it isn't. Disingenuous, to say the least. The council already is the reform. Its predecessor lasted half a century, and the same stumbling blocks that prevented fixing of the system in 2006 are still present and more entrenched than ever. The majority of the members of the U.N. General Assembly are not fully free democracies. Getting serious about democratic rights and freedoms is not their priority.

The council itself is controlled by human rights abusers who like it just the way it is. Membership is determined by distributing seats among five regional groups, with the African and Asian groups holding the majority. In turn, member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) hold a majority in each of the African and Asian groups. This gives the OIC the balance of power. When the going gets tough, the single U.S. vote, or the seven votes of the "Western European and Others Group" (WEOG), amount to a hill of beans. Resolutions are continually watered down for the sake of artificial consensus or adopted over the objection of every WEOG member. Just last week, we saw another sorry example of this phenomenon, with the adoption of a resolution on the "defamation of religions." What does restricting free speech in the name of "religion" have to do with protecting individual human rights?

By letting some of the world's worst regimes rub shoulders with its leading democracy, the United States becomes an enabler. These governments don't share Western or universal values. They use the council to: (1) feign interest in human rights, (2) keep the focus on Israel and away from themselves, (3) manufacture victim status, (4) encourage liberal guilt and concomitant financial responsibility, and (5) undermine the universal application of real human rights standards.

The record is incontrovertible. The council has passed more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all other 191 U.N. members combined. The council has one (of only ten) formal agenda items dedicated to criticizing Israel. And one agenda item to consider the human rights of the remaining 99.9 percent of the world's population. There have been 10 regular sessions on human rights for all, and five special sessions to condemn Israel alone. The council excludes only Israel from the key negotiating and information-sharing meetings of every regional group. It has terminated human rights investigations on Belarus, Cuba, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And all investigations of "consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms" in such states as Iran, Kyrgyzstan, the Maldives, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been "discontinued."

Absolutely none of that will change with the United States sitting in the front row, Obama's rhetorical skills notwithstanding. On the contrary, joining this farce means accepting the discriminatory agenda and attending WEOG meetings with a sign reading "no representatives of the Jewish people allowed" hanging on the door.

The Council's one new device -- the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) -- was heralded as introducing a careful examination of all UN 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.

Ironically, in the name of "engagement" the United States will now repeatedly be drawn into confrontations that could have been avoided. With Canada leaving the council, the European Union spineless in the face of OIC opposition, and the international human rights system now opposed to "naming and shaming," the United States will have to rock the boat if it wants to avoid joining a corrupt consensus. This will mean voting against OIC-driven resolutions and proposing "controversial" condemnations of any state other than Israel.

President Obama has waded into quicksand, which will drown both U.S. efforts to protect human rights and his sought-after reputation as their champion.