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Iain Guest on Obama and the UN Human Rights Council

Iain Guest on Obama and the UN Human Rights Council

Advocacy Project Director and MSFS adjunct professor at Georgetown, Iain Guest, has a thoughtful op ed in today’s Christian Science Monitor on the Obama Administration and the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Counci, it will be recalled, was recently established to replace the old, and frequently ineffective, Human Rights Commission. Guest writes, in part:

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.

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.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.