When the United Nations' Human Rights Council called a special session Tuesday to take up recent repressive actions by the government of Burma (Myanmar), it was evidence for some that the much-maligned forum still has a chance to become a relevant voice in the international community.
For others, however, it did nothing to sway judgment that the council, created just last year amid widespread calls for UN reform, is little more than a club for some of the world's dictators to don a cloak of respectability.
For this camp – which includes the US Congress, which recently voted to cut funding to the body – the council has turned out to be as bad or even worse than the discredited Human Rights Commission it replaced.
The US has eschewed membership in the council and has accepted only observer status since its inception in 2006.
All the debate around the Geneva-based council has led to intense discussion of what role the UN can even play in the universally recognized yet politically touchy area of human rights. Some experts call for giving the council more time and believe US interests would be best served from a seat at the table – even if it is an unsavory one. But critics say it's time for the US and other like-minded countries to sidestep the UN altogether in addressing human rights.
"The United States should not lend any respectability to a supposed human rights organization that coddles some of the most despotic regimes on the planet," says Nile Gardiner, an expert in international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which is close to Bush administration thinking.
Hardly anyone sings the praises of the council, which the US faults for fixating on Israel while failing to address some of the most blatant human rights stains of the day, including Sudan and the traumatized region of Darfur. But others say that the council is an improvement over the former commission and that the US should be fully engaged in it, acting as a force for more improvement.
"Despite all the evidence against the Human Rights Council, it's still a step better than what came before it," says Michael Doyle, a UN specialist at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York. "And the US would be better served by engaging from the inside, because then when we don't like something – and there are things we legitimately don't like – we can say so."
Among the improvements, Mr. Doyle notes, council members have accepted the principle of review for themselves – unlike the former commission, where countries sought membership as a refuge from review.
The old commission was condemned for accepting such countries as Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Libya as members. The current council, whose members are elected from five global regions using somewhat more-rigorous rules, includes Cuba, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – which human rights activists list as rights violators.
"We consider the council a work in progress," says Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, Cypriot minister of foreign affairs, who has long experience with UN institutions. "It has not yet found its real shape and mandate, but we think all countries that want it to be an effective part of the UN should cooperate in moving it in that direction."
That approach contrasts with that of the US, which prefers the role of outside critic. "We engage in discussions very actively, but we still find it is not a particularly consequential or important forum," says Kristen Silverberg, the US assistant secretary of State for international organization affairs.
Over its brief existence, the council has taken up Israel 13 times, Ms. Silverberg says, while at best issuing "benign statements" on issues like Sudan. In the meantime, "they've said nothing at all about Burma, Zimbabwe, or North Korea," she adds. As a result, she says, the US finds it more productive to work with the committee of the UN General Assembly that addresses human rights issues.
Officials with the council counter that it has addressed some very difficult human rights issues, including the situation in Congo. They also note that Tuesday, the council took up a resolution about Burma condemning the "continued violent repression" and calling on the council's "special rapporteur" on Burma to make an "urgent visit" there.
Yet at a time when America is emphasizing the role the UN should play in furthering universal human rights – as President Bush emphasized at the UN General Assembly last week – the US is caught between ignoring the body established for that purpose and seeking its reform.
Mr. Bush said in his speech that "to be credible on human rights in the world, the UN must reform its own Human Rights Council." But others say that the council is more a reflection of the difficulty in reforming the 192-nation UN. "The idea that [the council] could be reformed for the better is ludicrous," says Mr. Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation. "The US should join with other free nations in building an alternative to this failed institution, and I do think that's what we'll see happening over the next few years."
But Doyle of Columbia University, who was previously a US diplomat at the UN, says the US is much more likely to deliver progress on the human rights issues it believes need addressing by using its weight and persuasive voice inside the UN's institutions, including the council. "That will go better," he says, "if we're participating rather than sulking outside the tent."