US rejoins UN’s human rights forum
Bush had shunned it as an ineffective dictators' club. Obama's team pledges to work from within to 'improve' it.
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"Washington's decision lends a veneer of respectability to a discredited body that does not deserve to be recognized as an organization that advances human rights," says Nile Gardiner, an analyst of international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The Obama administration is living in a fantasy world if it thinks this council can be reformed."Skip to next paragraph
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Much attention to Israel
Created in 2006 as part of an ambitious but ultimately limited reform of the UN, the Human Rights Council replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission, which had become known as a dictators' club. Council supporters say the relatively new body, while not perfect, has held 10 special sessions on human rights cases such as Myanmar (Burma), Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the West Bank and Gaza.
Critics counter that the Islamic-heavy body – 26 of the 47 geographically allocated seats are from Asia and Africa – focuses too much on Israel and issues like Islamophobia in the West. They note, for example, that half of the special sessions that supporters cite as evidence of the council's positive work were focused on Israel. The council did open a special session on Darfur, but its results were disregarded, they insist, and a team of experts created to scrutinize Sudan and the Darfur region was disbanded.
Anne Bayefsky of EyeontheUN.org, a UN watchdog group, says the "real story" of Tuesday's vote is that Kenya was defeated in the Africa group, assuring the Organization of the Islamic Conference's "hold on the balance of power" in the council.
Others, like Mr. Havel, say the council's undemocratic election rules offer a poor example to young countries and assure "tyrants" a legitimizing forum. Human Rights Watch welcomed the US return to the human rights body, but Steve Crawshaw, the group's UN advocacy director, said its was marred by the fact the US was elected "from a noncompetitive slate."
Abusers on the council?
Council members are chosen from regional slates that are generally agreed to before the membership vote. In Tuesday's election, 20 candidates vied for 18 seats, and even the Western countries offered only three candidates for three open seats.
A recent report by Freedom House and Human Rights Watch found that one-third of the council candidates should have been disqualified over their human rights records.
But some council sympathizers also say that criticism of the body is largely concentrated in the West and reflects a decades-old fault line between wealthy and developing worlds. Western nations take seven of the council's seats; Asia and Africa each have 13.
A key test of the Obama's administration's decision "to work from inside rather than sulking outside the tent" will be how quickly the US presses for council reform, says Columbia University's Mr. Doyle. Echoing Ambassador Rice's pledge, he says, "They don't have to wait for the 2011 review to try to press for real improvement."