The United States was elected to a seat on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.  Will our presence positively influence its performance?  Some people don’t think so.  BAYEFSKY: U.S. on Human Rights Council

Becoming part of the problem and not of the solution

The United Nations General Assembly elected the members of its lead human rights body, the Human Rights Council, Tuesday in New York and among them are some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

Now in a position to give the rest of us advice on protecting human rights are Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba and Russia. In a slap in the face to President Obama, the United States was elected with fewer votes than either Belgium or Norway, the only two other states running for the three Western slots. Even a country like Kyrgyzstan received more votes than the United States.

Doesn’t sound like we were welcomed with open arms.  On the other hand, you could  argue that proves our presence is sorely needed.

The composition of the Council:

…Tuesday’s election also means a majority of council members are not fully free democracies (on the Freedom House scale).

The election also solidified the chokehold of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on the United Nations’ human rights agency. The OIC managed to defeat Kenya, a non-Islamic but major African state. This enabled the OIC to retain a majority of the council seats allotted to the African regional group. The OIC also maintained a majority of the seats allotted to the Asian group. Since the Africans and Asians together hold an absolute majority on the council, Islamic countries hold the balance of power.

How much influence can the United States wield?  Going by the numbers, not much:

Following the election, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice could hardly contain her glee. She told reporters the United States was there to change things – that old “join now and reform some time in the future” line. It is hard to understand why Ms. Rice and Mr. Obama can’t just do the math. Of a total of 47 seats, there will be one U.S. vote and 26 votes controlled by the Islamic group; there are just seven Western votes altogether. The United States is either going to lose big or it is going to join “consensus” on human rights abominations because news of losing too often might find its way back to American taxpayers – who foot 22 percent of the bill.

Ambassador Rice’s remarks are here.   One exchange between her and a reporter:

Reporter: There are some people who contended that because of the membership of the Council, the bad human rights record of some members of the Council—and some people put the United States in that category—that it’s impossible that it can’t be effective on human rights because the members themselves don’t respect it. What do you think about that?

Ambassador Rice: We don’t think it’s impossible. We certainly share the view that the Council has not performed to its potential. But we wouldn’t be running if we thought it was impossible for the Council to fulfill the vision that we all had when it was established. Obviously there will always be some countries whose respect and record on human rights is sub-par; we have not been perfect ourselves. But we intend to lead based on the strong, principled vision that the American people have about respecting human rights, supporting democracy. We look forward to the review that is coming up in 2011 as an important opportunity to strengthen and reform the Council.

There has been some criticism of her tone, people arguing that she’s continuing down the denigrate-America-first road that the President has paved in his statements to foreign audiences and governments. That attitude makes sense, given that context.  It’s just possible that in this case she was patterning her answer on the form of the reporter’s question.  It was the reporter who threw in the reference to the United States’ human rights past.  Just barely possible.

Of course, she didn’t have to agree with the premise at all, and if her intention is to positively affect human rights discussions using America’s moral weight, it’s hard to understand why she undermined it in that way.  I’m assuming the reference was to black civil rights history.  She could have pointed out the tremendous progress America has made, using her boss as the definitive example.  Humility has its uses, but my experience in the real world is that if someone walks around with a “Kick Me” sign on his back, somebody will oblige him.  People take you at your own valuation.  I don’t think nations are any different.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens when the Council starts acting.  Given that the majority vote belongs to countries whose political and cultural mindsets gave us the travesty of Durban II, and our own Ambassador’s apparent ambivalence about her country’s moral worth in the area of human rights, I don’t have high hopes for any success in effecting changes in attitude.  Why should they follow our example, when our own representative seems to see so little value in it?

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