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Obama's moment on human rights

The US should make joining the UN Human Rights Council a priority.

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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.

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The African bloc has insisted – successfully – that any country monitors be approved by the government under review, and the rapporteurs for Cuba, Belarus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Liberia have all been retired. This means, incredibly, that the UN has no formal process for monitoring human rights in eastern Congo, which is in the throes of a deadly conflict. Many predict that the days may be numbered even for the UN's rapporteur on Sudan, which triggered the whole reform in the first place.

In place of these country inquiries, the council has established a process that is both bureaucratic and toothless. Known as the "Universal Periodic Review," it requires that all UN member governments submit to a three-hour review by the council every four years. This puts zero pressure on violators.

All of this represents a sweeping retreat from the 1990s, when 15 governments were subject to critical public appraisal by the UN. Country-specific inquiries may have unfairly penalized weak governments. But in this age of genocide, the pendulum has surely swung too far in the wrong direction.

Can the trend be reversed? Yes, but it will require vision. This should not be difficult. All governments understand that global challenges such as climate change and recession will put immense pressure on the weak and require a strong human rights response from the UN.

Such a vision will need a strategy. The US should start by courting moderate governments that feel obliged to vote with their regions but could probably be persuaded to support a less politicized approach. Many have greeted Obama's election with relief, but to take advantage of their goodwill, his team must propose a practical agenda instead of lamenting the council's shortcomings. This should start with a commitment to abide by international standards of behavior. There can be no more preaching human rights and practicing torture.

Second, the US should call for an overhaul of the Universal Periodic Review. It desperately needs independent oversight.

Finally, Obama and his nominee for UN Ambassador, Susan Rice, should appoint a delegate with a proven commitment to human rights. Such an agenda would require an investment in diplomatic capital. But it would also produce a huge return – for the US and for human rights.

Iain Guest is an adjunct professor at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, where he teaches human rights. He also directs the Advocacy Project, an NGO in Washington that supports community-based human rights groups.