When Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi starting firing on his people, the UN Human Rights Council took a rare step against one of its own: It suspended Libya’s membership in the international body.
For those who saw the special session on Libya as a dramatic sign of change in how the council would treat dictatorships caught on TV screens around the world mowing down civilians, they had only to look to the election slate for the council’s next session, to be held in May. There, running unopposed, was Syria, home to the most recent round of bloody protests in the Middle East as civilians ask for more rights and freedoms and receive violence in return.
The Human Rights Council, which ended its 16th session last week, did find time to consider the situation of Syrian civilians in one resolution before recessing, however.
As a Washington Post editorial last Sunday noted, “The council did speak out in defense of citizens of Syria, scores of whom have been slaughtered by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the past week or so. But it was talking not about the people of Daraa or Damascus, but the ‘Syrian citizens’ of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”
In fact, as the wider Middle East convulsed, the council found time to pass six resolutions criticizing Israel for various transgressions while barely registering the abuses happening in neighboring countries.
THAT DISPLAY has revived questions about whether the US should participate in the Human Rights Council. The Obama administration made the decision to gain a seat on the grounds that engagement would be more productive than shunning, after the Bush administration did just that out of a conviction that the council was irredeemable.
Earlier this month House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) said that Obama’s efforts to reform the council had “failed” and that it was time to leave the body.
Critics of the US presence on the council point to its inability to achieve one of its key initial goals upon taking up its seat – the removal of Agenda Item 7, which ensures that Israel’s activities in the Palestinian territories are debated at each council session. There is no similar resolution for any other country.
When Eileen Chamberlain Donaho assumed her post as US ambassador to the council two years ago, she pledged that America would work to remove Agenda Item 7 and said that it was a priority to eliminate the council’s anti- Israel bias.
According to the nongovernmental group UN Watch, since its inception five years ago, the council has passed 61 resolutions censuring countries, about of which 41 were on Israel.
Anne Bayefsky, of Eye on the UN, warned that the US presence on the council legitimizes a body which has human rights abusers as members and a worse record on Israel than the defunct and widely disparaged Human Rights Commission which the council replaced in 2006.
THE OBAMA administration, however, is showing no signs of reconsidering its approach.
On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced that in light of the progress his country had wrought in the council, it would seek a second term in the May 2012 elections.
The US is partway through a three-year term. The timing of the announcement – coming even before the 2011 elections in May for which it doesn’t need to stand because its term has not expired – seemed intended to put to rest speculation about America’s future on the council.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs Suzanne Nossel acknowledged that the current council has not been able to move fast or comprehensively enough in addressing the many conflict zones in the Middle East, but said there were some positive results.
“The council during this session I think did respond in some important ways to some of the important developments in the Middle East,” she said. “Of course there were other things that the council did not address. So it’s partial. Their ability to come to grips with these things has improved somewhat, but it’s far from complete.”
She cited the designation of a special rapporteur to look into Iran’s
human rights record as a major achievement, as well as Libya’s
And she argued that despite the shortcomings, it’s better for America to
be at the table, objecting to Israel’s treatment and pushing for action
against rogue states, than to abandon the fight.
“The global debate on human rights is an important one and we don’t want
to cede that ground to those who will work against our interests and
against Israel’s interests,” she said.
That’s an argument that makes sense to a number of Jewish organizations
alarmed at Israel’s treatment but invested in the cause of human rights.
“It’s important to be in the game,” said Dan Mariaschin, B’nai B’rith
International’s executive vice president. “We believe that there’s a
value in standing up on these issues.
“The frustration is extremely high. The exasperation is very high. I
understand those who say, ‘Forget it, we’re not getting anywhere.’” But
ultimately he said that points of progress – like focusing attention on
Iran’s human rights abuses so it can’t hide behind the UN as it points
at others – made continued participation worthwhile.
AND THE Anti-Defamation League, which originally advised the Obama
administration not to join the council until the permanent agenda item
on Israel was removed, is not calling for America to leave at this
On Monday, the ADL sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
praising the US for the strides the council has taken with US
participation even as it pushes for more to be done on Israel’s behalf.
“We are writing to congratulate the United States for promoting and
achieving strong action at the Human Rights Council on some of the most
pressing human rights issues of our time, and to urge you to move
forcefully to promote reforms related to Israel’s treatment,” national
director Abraham Foxman wrote.
MK Einat Wilf (Independence) said she understood America’s desire “to
view itself as having made some difference, and it may very well be the
case that they have made some achievements, but they have been made in
the context of what is a very illegitimate body that does not promote
human rights and deflects attention from gross human rights abusers.”
By participating in the council, she said, the US provides “moral
legitimacy” to what is by far the vilest of the UN bodies and the one
that least represents the great ideals of the UN.
But it can be a stronger agent for change inside the council than outside, said Wilf.
She added that there is no clear right or wrong position in what is a very complex situation.
Those on Capitol Hill supportive of the Obama administration’s
participation on the council claim that the achievements of the past
session wouldn’t have happened without America’s persistent presence.
“No other country in the world devotes the resources [to the council]
that we do,” said one congressional aide tracking the issue, who noted
that only the US has a fulltime ambassador devoted to the body.
“None or very few of the positive agenda items that got through the
council would have happened without substantial US involvement.”
In addition to Libya’s suspension and the Iran rapporteur, he pointed to
the council’s decision to send a commission of inquiry to Cote
D’Ivoire, a statement supporting gay rights and a US-led effort to scale
back language condemning religious defamation that would contradict
freedom of expression.
But those critical of the US presence charge that a handful of gains
don’t compensate for the imprimatur of legitimacy America lends the
council and its other, less agreeable actions.
“Notwithstanding some US successes, the deck is still stacked against
human rights at the human rights council,” said another congressional
aide, who calculated that 26 of the 47 members of the council were
graded not free or only partially free by Freedom House. “We are
legitimizing the council, and that legitimacy also applies to the
He argued that there were other ways for the US to be a leader on
international human rights, such as participating in other UN bodies or
establishing its own with clear membership guidelines so that human
rights abusers would be excluded.
SOON, THE administration might not have a choice. New legislation
expected to be filed by Ros-Lehtinen in the coming weeks would bar the
US from running to retain its seat when it next comes up for election if
the council hasn’t met certain benchmarks.
It would also withhold from America’s UN contribution an amount equal to
the US share of costs for the council unless the secretary of state
certified that the council would refuse member states which are under UN
Security Council resolutions for human rights violations or sanctions;
doesn’t include state sponsors of terror or countries of concern
according to the US survey of religious freedom; and that the agenda
doesn’t include a permanent item devoted to Israel.
A similar requirement that US deduct UN Human Rights Council costs from
of its overall allocation was approved at Ros-Lehtinen’s urging during
the Bush administration.
That was at a time when the White House had already decided not to
participate in the council – but Congress was under Democratic control
and passed the motion easily on a voice vote.
Come this spring, the Obama administration will now have to make its
case not only in the international arena, but in its hometown.