How the U.S. and Other Democratic States Can Fix the Human Rights Council
Paula Schriefer of Freedom House makes a compelling argument about the central failings of the UN Human Rights Council and how they can be overcome in this piece over at Foreign Policy. It is not, as many argue, the mere presence of bad actors on the Council or the ability of those states and their friends to run the place and deflect attention from their appalling human rights records that weakens the Council. The core — and fixable — problem is the failure of the bloc of democratic states to stop this bad behavior in its tracks:
The council’s primary weakness is not that the world’s most repressive societies manage to get themselves elected and then run roughshod over the council’s other members, but rather that the majority of the world’s democracies let them do it. There are more democracies than dictatorships in the world today; yet curiously, it is the despots who focus their diplomatic energies on the council.
Despite the fact that democracies outnumber nondemocracies on the council by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1, only a handful of the council’s 47 members can be counted upon to vote consistently in accordance with human rights priorities. It will take enormous diplomatic effort to turn this around.
Schriefer argues that it will take a concerted effort by the U.S. to move the Council in the right direction, but it is well within the capacity of the U.S. to do so:
The Obama administration has already achieved one laudable success in helping to secure, in June at the last council session, passage of a resolution to continue examination of Sudan. The resolution passed, albeit just barely, because of significant behind-the-scenes U.S. lobbying that helped break down the council’s debilitating tradition of bloc voting by securing the yes votes (or in some cases the abstentions) of important African and Latin American democracies. Efforts like these require U.S. diplomats to travel to key capital cities and engage in genuine discussions with their counterparts, listening to concerns and making acceptable compromises or trade-offs.
Although the Sudan resolution marked a rare and unexpected success, it will require even greater effort to bring other council members around on fundamental human rights issues, such as protecting freedom of expression or censuring the world’s most egregious rights abusers, issues on which the council has so far failed miserably. In the coming year, the United States will have its work cut out for it in ensuring the continued mandates of special rapporteurs for countries like Somalia and Burma and in defeating the annual resolutions that attempt to criminalize speech critical of religions or religious practices.
I largely agree with her immediate “to do” list for the Obama administration:
(1) Get the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor confirmed and in place; (2) appoint an ambassador to the Council, rather than have the Geneva representative (a slot that is also unfilled right now) cover the Council as part of a larger UN portfolio; (3) staff up both positions in Washington and Geneva so that the U.S. can do the diplomatic leg-work necessary to move the Council toward more effective oversight.
Update: The Freedom House “The Human Rights Council Report Card: 2007-2009” can be accessed here.