Reversing Bush policy, US seeks seat on UN Human Rights council

The US will try to reform the council – some of whose members shield human rights violators – from within, officials said.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Diplomatic: President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived at the US ambassador’s residence in London Wednesday to meet China’s president, Hu Jintao. Ms. Clinton announced Tuesday that the US will join the UN Human Rights Council, some of whose members including China have shielded human rights violators such as Sudan.

President Obama is taking another step down the road of engaging America's adversaries with the decision to seek a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, a group President Bush had shunned.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in a statement Tuesday the reversal of Bush's policy of remaining outside the council as a way of protesting its makeup and work. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system," Secretary Clinton said, with the goal of "advancing the vision of the UN declaration on Human Rights."

The administration's decision set off the latest installment of a debate in foreign-policy circles over whether the world's most egregious rights abusers are best confronted from within or outside the international human rights tent embodied by the council.

The 47-country council is tasked with defending international rights, but even some of its members concede the Geneva-based body spends too much time criticizing Israel and focusing on issues such as Islamophobia in Western countries. The council's predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, was branded as a club for dictators and scuttled in 2006. The current council is dominated by countries from Africa and Asia that have shielded human rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe from scrutiny.

The Bush administration concluded that US membership would only grant legitimacy to the council, and stayed outside when it was created in 2006. The US initially accepted observer status but then decided even that was too much.

But on the same day that the Obama administration extended overtures to Iran, US officials at the UN explained the new "reform from within" stance on the council.

Joining the council is part of Obama's "new era of diplomatic engagement," said the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, adding that the aim was to make the council "a more effective body and to protect and promote human rights."

Preempting potential protests from conservatives who preferred the Bush administration's express condemnation of the council, Ambassador Rice added, "As a fully engaged member of the council, we'll be working from within rather than sitting on the sidelines – and thus can do more."

"Getting in now would put the US in the "best position to influence the 2011 council review," Rice added in a conference call with reporters.

The US will go up for election to the council in a mid-May vote, but will join Belgium and Norway in a three-candidate ticket for three seats and thus is virtually guaranteed a seat.

But some UN and human rights experts say remaining outside now with the 2011 review as a bargaining chip would have been the better way to pursue reform of the council.

"US membership and the prestige that comes with it should have been withheld until 2011," says Steven Groves, a specialist in international human rights institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. The Obama administration could have used the fact that the world wants the US in the council as a means of pressing for meaningful changes, he adds, "but the US surrendered that ground without a fight."

Now, he says, the US will just be one of seven Western democracies up against 40 countries – mostly from Africa and Asia – that are suspicious of any institutional focus on countries from their regions.

"We're probably going to be replacing Canada with the US," Mr. Groves says, "so it's hard too see how this will be an improvement under the current structure."

Still, most international human rights groups received the US decision favorably. "Active involvement by the US will bring new energy and focus to the Human Rights Council's deliberations and actions, helping it become a more credible force for human rights promotion," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Roth acknowledged the council's failure to address "the wide range of serious human rights problems around the world" while keeping a "one-sided focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." But, he says, as a member the US could lead the council to "fulfill its potential."

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