Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Harold Brackman is a historian and consultant to the center.
It's official: George W. Bush's Cold War against a key U.N. agency is history. In a bold departure from the past, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have decided to re-engage the United Nations Human Rights Council—an agency the previous administration boycotted. Once again, the United States will become a voting member with the intention of shaking things up in Geneva.
It'll be a Herculean task to try to reform the HRC apparatus. Since its inception in 2006, the council has failed to tackle serious human rights abuses in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Belarus, and Cuba. Covering for each other, these nations, along with China and African, Arab, and Muslim countries, could agree to single out only one culprit for serial censure: Israel.
A month ago, the Obama administration's first attempt to change the U.N.'s human wrongs culture abruptly ended in failure as the winds of change ridden by our first African-American president were not enough to purge the odor of bigotry from the planning sessions for Durban II, the U.N. antiracism conference slated for next month. The Obama administration could not undo the HRC's Orwellian doublespeak, which pre-ordains more Israel bashing in the hypocritical spirit of the world's NGOs that piled on the Jewish state at the first Durban Conference, convened just days before 9/11.
It's good that Obama and Company are a hopeful bunch because history suggests the nagging possibility that the U.N. human rights machinery may be beyond saving.
A year after World War II ended, the fledgling United Nations hoped for a better tomorrow. It established the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which received its marching orders two years later with the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, midwived by U.S. delegate Eleanor Roosevelt, to secure "equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." Little was achieved during the long Cold War. It would be a quarter of a century before the U.N. took on Apartheid South Africa, and 1981 before the world body belatedly condemned religious discrimination—but not anti-Semitism. Few protests greeted the U.N. General Assembly's 1975 resolution equating "Zionism with racism"—an infamy not overturned until 1991.
But in 2001, as the Holy Land erupted in the violent Second Intifada, the U.N.'s human rights bureaucracy responded to the new Bush administration's criticism of the UNCHR by voting the United States off the commission. The ugly anti-American and anti-Israel onslaught, led by Arab and Muslim nations, at the Durban World Conference Against Racism that year added to the toxic U.N. environment.
In 2003, the United States, again a UNCHR member, could not stop the commission from overwhelmingly passing a resolution declaring that movements "against foreign occupation and for self-determination" were entitled to "all available means, including armed struggle"—a euphemism for Palestinian suicide bombings against Israel. Soon, the foxes had the keys to the hen house, with the UNCHR giving a free ride to human rights abusers among its own members including Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Cuba, and China. Finally in 2004, the U.S. walked out to protest the "absurdity" of Sudan's membership while it was ethnically cleansing Darfur. In fact, the U.N. Security Council had to override the UNCHR to pass a resolution, with China and Pakistan abstaining, threatening Sudan with sanctions.
Mounting complaints about the UNCHR climaxed in 2006 when the General Assembly voted for an overhaul package including a name change to the Human Rights Council (HRC). Protesting that most of the "reforms" were cosmetic, the United States declined membership, but agreed to participate as a HRC "observer." The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, would decry "the Council's relentless focus during the year on a single country—Israel," in contrast with its failure to address serious abuses anywhere else. The U.S. Senate voted to end further American funding for the HRC.
The New York Time s—a staunch critic of the Bush administration—agreed with criticism of the "new" CHR. Its editorial—"The Shame of the United Nations"—chided "leading international human rights groups [that] have unwisely put their preference for multilateral consensus ahead of their duty to fight for the strongest possible human rights protection."
Today, the Human Rights Council—far from realizing Eleanor Roosevelt's hopes—sounds like the lyrics of the rock group The Who: "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss." Will the new U.S. re-engagement with the U.N. actually succeed in giving voice to Darfurian rape victims, displaced Zimbabwean farmers, and exiled Tibetan monks? In a world where so much about human rights has gone so wrong, that's the only measure of change that truly counts.