US defends participation in UN rights council

Critics have attacked Obama administration for participating in body that singles out Israel, allows human right's offenders to serve as members.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
March 30, 2011 02:41
4 minute read.
Suzanne Nossel.

Suzanne Nossel 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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WASHINGTON – The Obama administration defended its participation in the UN Human Rights Council, after the body’s recent session wrapped up last week with the appointment of a special rapporteur on Iran but more anti-Israel resolutions passed than ever before.

“We thought there were some significant and worthwhile things that came out of the session,” Suzanne Nossel, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, told The Jerusalem Post Monday.

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“We recognize that not everybody’s going to agree with us, and we’re not going to prevail all the time, but we think it’s an important debate to be part of,” she said.

Critics have attacked the administration for participating in a body that singles out Israel and allows some of the countries with the worst records on human rights to serve as members.

Nossel acknowledged the problematic nature of the council, noting that “there were things we were dissatisfied with – obviously the continued and excessive attention to Israel.”

She also described the organization as not living up to its own mandate.

“The council historically has been very weak and has really fallen short of its obligation to address the full range of serious human rights situations globally,” she said.

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“Their ability to come to grips with these things has improved somewhat, but it’s far from complete.”

She pointed to successes, including the Iran rapporteur to monitor and report on human rights violations there; the decision to send a commission of inquiry to Ivory Coast; a statement supporting gay rights; and a US-led effort to scale back language condemning religious defamation that would contradict freedom of expression.

The body also made an unprecedented decision to suspend Libya once Col. Muammar Gaddafi starting firing on his own people, but Syria – believed to be engaged in similar activities on a smaller scale – is still likely to be elected to membership on the council this May, as it is currently running unopposed.

Scenarios like this one have intensified opposition to US participation in the council in some quarters, as critics charge that the changes the Obama administration envisioned by rejoining a body shunned under the Bush administration have not materialized.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is expected to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that would eliminate US funding for the body if it were not reformed.

According to committee staff, the funds would be denied unless the secretary of state certified that the council would bar member states under UN Security Council resolutions for human rights violations or sanctions; would not include state sponsors of terror or countries of concern according to the US survey of religious freedom; and would not include on its agenda a permanent item devoted to Israel.

“The Council’s rare resolutions criticizing real human rights abuses are usually too little and too late.

Why did it take the massacre of hundreds of people in the streets for the UN to throw Libya off the Council?” Ros-Lehtinen asked in a Miami Herald op-ed last week.

“Why are other human rights abusers – including China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – still on the Council?” She concluded, “The Obama administration has tried to reform the council from within, but has failed. We should finally leave the council and explore credible, alternative forums to advance human rights.”

Nossel argued, however, that changing the way the council worked was a long-term project, and that it was important that America was there to make that investment.

“It takes work and effort over time. The shortcomings principally reflect a lack of political will on the part of the membership of the council, so a lot of our work is focused on trying to build that political will through dialogue and engagement,” she said. “We do think that it’s important to come to the council, to make these arguments, to lay out viewpoints on what we see as some critical issues.”

She added that it was all the more important that the US be able to voice its opposition to the treatment of Israel – which faces a permanent agenda item devoted to its alleged abuses, as well as a special rapporteur on its treatment of the Palestinians – because “there aren’t always others present who register those objections.”

The US and Israel coordinate closely and are in frequent contact on Human Rights Council activity, according to Nossel.

“The view that many have taken, even if they share our deep frustration and dissatisfaction with the council’s treatment of Israel, is that it’s better to have us on the inside than on the outside, that we’ve made some progress but that there’s room for more progress, that 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.”

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