Obama's moment on human rights
The US should make joining the UN Human Rights Council a priority.
After eight years of neglect, President-elect Barack Obama is eager to have the United States re-engage with the United Nations. A good way to begin would be to join the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
President Bush snubbed the preeminent international human rights policymaking body when it was established in 2006, with disastrous results. A speedy reversal by Mr. Obama would give hope to moderate governments that yearn for a stronger UN human rights program. It would also invigorate the entire UN system, generate goodwill, and encourage others to help with tough policy challenges like Guantanamo Bay.
There is no time to be lost.
Dec. 10 is the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it will not be much of a celebration. The UN's human rights program has been badly weakened by an ill-advised reform and by America's absence from the Human Rights Council.
Until 2006, UN human rights policy was made by the Human Rights Commission, a body of 53 governments that included Sudan and Zimbabwe. Sudan's membership, at the peak of the genocide in Darfur, caused outrage in Washington and prompted calls for reform. The commission was voted out of existence in 2005 and replaced by the council.
The problem is that no governments have clean hands when it comes to human rights, so basing election to the council on good behavior would have excluded most of the world's powerful governments. That would not have been credible.
As a result, the new council was organized along the lines of the much-maligned commission, into five regions. The big difference was that Africa and Asia each received almost twice as many seats as the West in the horse-trading. This was a recipe for mischief, and the Bush administration made it worse by declining even to apply for membership.
In the three years since, hapless Western governments have been consistently outmaneuvered and outvoted on the council. They suffered a particularly serious reverse in March this year, when Islamic governments weakened a key UN inquiry into freedom of expression.
Even more damaging has been the steady erosion of independent "rapporteurs" who follow the record of individual governments. Their reports have long been the gold standard for international human rights monitoring, but such finger-pointing against individual governments could soon be a thing of the past.