Right Move on UN Human Rights Council

The Bush Administration should be applauded for its decision not to seek election to the newly created United Nations Human Rights Council.

The 47-seat body is not a significant improvement over the hugely discredited Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The new Council’s complete lack of membership criteria renders it open to infiltration and manipulation by the world’s worst human rights abusers. Significantly, Burma, Syria, Libya, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe all voted in favor of the new Council in the General Assembly, in the face of strong U.S. opposition. The brutal North Korean regime has given the Council its ringing endorsement.

With the vulnerabilities of the new Council, the U.S. has made the right decision in adopting a wait and see approach. China, Cuba, and Iran, all notorious human rights violators, have already announced their intention to run for seats on the Council. Should they gain membership, it will be a clear sign that the new Council will be just as impotent as its predecessor. If their applications and those of other dictatorships are rejected, it will demonstrate that UN member states are taking the Council more seriously than the old Commission and that the new body may merit the effort necessary to secure a seat in the future.

For now, however, that seems unlikely. As the New York Times editorialized, while skewering the failure of international human rights group such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to hold the UN to a higher standard, the Council proposal was "so watered down that it has become an ugly sham, offering cover to an unacceptable status quo." The U.S. can use its diplomatic resources more profitably than to pursue now a seat on this unpromising body.

The Failures of the Council

U.S. efforts to advance fundamental reform of the Human Rights Commission were blocked, and opponents of reform carried the day in the General Assembly. The final resolution creating the Human Rights Council contains many disappointing aspects:

  • There are no criteria for membership on the Council. New members of the Council will be elected by a simple majority of the General Assembly. No state, no matter how poor its human rights record, is barred from membership — even states under Security Council sanction are not excluded. UN member states are simply instructed that a state’s human rights record should be “taken into account” when they vote for prospective Council members. Some UN member states have pledged to oppose human rights abusers seeking Council membership, but they are unlikely to have the votes necessary to block their election.
  • The peer-review mechanism would not automatically affect eligibility for Council membership. While there is a periodic review requirement for Council members, the review is not tied to a mandatory outcome and there is no guarantee that even countries found complicit in massive and sustained human rights abuses would be censured. While there is a provision for suspending a Council member that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights, that step could be taken only with the agreement of two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly. Not even 50 percent of the General Assembly could agree that Sudan was guilty of human rights violations in November 2005; reaching this threshold would be near impossible.
  • There is only a minimal reduction in membership from the old chr. Instead of a smaller, more streamlined body designed to attract the best members of each regional group, the resolution makes only a minimal reduction in membership, from 53 members to 47.
  • The resolution significantly shifts the balance of power away from the Western regional group. The African and Asian groups will hold 55 percent of the votes. The proportional representation of the Asian group will see the greatest increase, and the Western European and Others Group (which includes the United States) the greatest decline. Indeed, the Western group absorbed half of the total reduction of 6 seats, despite that the group is composed mostly of free democracies that observe fundamental human rights and freedoms and support those policies abroad. The end result is to reduce the voice of countries likely to promote human rights.
  • Special sessions of the Commission can be called by only one-third of the Council’s membership. Hailed as an improved capacity to deal with urgent human rights situations, the composition of the new Council will make it more likely that special sessions will be about the United States and Israel than about China or Sudan.
  • The Council has a mandate to follow up goals and commitments "emanating from U.N. conferences and summits." Many of these do not have universal support and lack legal standing.
  • The resolution erodes the well-established standard of freedom of speech. A last-minute addition in response to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Danish cartoons affair places an emphasis on roles and responsibilities rather than explicitly endorsing freedom of speech.

A Sensible, Principled Decision

The decision by the Bush Administration to forgo seeking a seat on the Human Rights Council is entirely consistent with its principled vote against the UN resolution that established it.

Paradoxically, the U.S. wields greater leverage and influence if it decides not to run for membership. The diplomatic capital the U.S. would have to expend in order to win election would be far better spent pressing our allies and friends to vote for upstanding members of the international community and to adopt rules and procedures that would make the Council’s work much more effective. U.S. diplomats should work with other countries to identify and implement a set of preferred outcomes and procedures.

The U.S. should exercise its influence by announcing it will not run for election to the new Council unless specific conditions are met, particularly in terms of membership. For instance, the U.S. should demand that the Council not elect any state listed by Freedom House in "The Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies," any of the worst 60 states listed in Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World,” or any state subject to Chapter VII Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses or terrorism.

The United States Congress should also announce that future funding for the Human Rights Council will depend on the effectiveness of the new body. Congress should direct the State Department to report on the Council’s performance in the upcoming year and restrict funds if the Council fails to meet minimum standards for membership or fails to confront prominent human rights abusers, including long standing abuses in China, Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.


The U.S. gains very little from joining a defective UN Human Rights Council. Holding back preserves America’s moral stance and places greater pressure on other nations to oppose efforts by human rights abusers to hinder the work of the Council just as they did the Human Rights Commission. The U.S. must not seek a seat on the Council if it is tainted by the odor of despotism or tyranny. While making every effort to push for reform, the United States must seek the creation of a complementary human rights body outside of the UN system that would be composed solely of democratic states that adhere to the basic principles of individual liberty and freedom.