Push for Engagement with the Human Rights Council

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The newly created Human Rights Council has yet to reach its potential. While the Council has been stymied by a bloc of U.N. member states who refuse to allow serious action on human rights, the lack of U.S. leadership has contributed to the problem. Despite this dearth of leadership and slow start, however, the Council is a body worthy of U.S. support.

It is a stronger, more accountable institution than its predecessor. Along with preserving aspects of the Human Rights Commission worth keeping, such as the system of independent experts on human rights matters, it has installed procedures for a universal periodic review of the human rights record of every U.N. member state, starting with members of the Human Rights Council, and has created better election standards for its members. The recent failure of regular human rights offender Belarus to obtain a Council seat was a promising development.

But without more leadership from countries with strong democratic and human rights traditions— leadership the United States could contribute— the Council will be unable to live up to its potential Where democratic members of the Council have failed to take the initiative, less democratic states have moved in to fill the void.

For example, 17 states on the Council that are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have stepped in to chair the regional groups for Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and have undermined efforts to publicly condemn human rights abuses in a host of countries. Countries such as the Philippines and Thailand that have been voting with the OIC would likely change their stance with U.S. leadership providing an alternative vision.

Many of the problems of the Council—its failure to act on Darfur in its first several sessions, its single-minded scrutiny of Israel’s human rights violations, its dropping of mandates on countries with clearly appalling human rights records—can be traced back to situations in which bloc voting and the work of non-democratic countries triumphed over the indifference of democratic ones.

U.S. involvement could dramatically alter the way the Council operates and thus improve a vital function of the world body. As a country founded on values such as democracy, human rights, and civil liberties that is supposed to be a global leader, the United States needs to be engaged with the only universal standing body to address human rights concerns. The best way to move this important organization in the proper direction is through active engagement, not by criticizing from the sidelines. Through the resolution or appropriations process, Congress should urge the administration to run for a Council seat in 2008.

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