The U.N.'s Big Human Rights Problem

Last week's Human Rights Council election is a sign of much bigger issues within the organization.

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Manouchehr Mottaki, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iran, waits to meet with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 at United Nations headquarters.

On November 12, Saudi Arabia, China, Vietnam, Russia, Cuba and Algeria were elected by secret ballot to three-year terms on the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council. The accession of these authoritarian governments, including three ruled by communist parties, to a body mandated to work "objectively" to advance human rights leaves the council open to ridicule.  On the other hand, the degradation of the UN by non-democratic members is familiar by now.  As permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia have blocked action, and even rhetoric, aimed at staunching the slaughter of civilians in Syria.

Countries with bad records on human rights have belonged to the council before. However, the latest autocratic regimes mark a qualitative change in the body's composition. Worse yet, their election involved the co-option of democracies that ought to have been counted on to oppose them. Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, calculates that for Russia and China to have been elected to the council with 176 votes, 11 member states of the European Union, ostensibly committed to democracy, the rule of law and human rights, had to have voted for them.

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The Human Rights Council, created in 2006, was intended to be more credible than the body it replaced, the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights. One of the reforms adopted was to increase the number of votes that candidates receive from just 28 to an absolute majority of the 193 members of the General Assembly. Given the political trials of democracy protesters in Russia and the recent round up of dissidents in China, it is fair to wonder how Moscow and Beijing won so many votes – if not why the ballot is kept secret. Another innovation, the conduct of peer reviews of members of the council, is an inadequate substitute for diplomatic pressure. Four years ago, in an earlier term on the council, Beijing's record was reviewed by other states, but in the intervening years, Beijing's record deteriorated sharply.

When the council was founded, President George W. Bush decided the U.S. would not seek election to it. Upon coming to office, President Barack Obama reversed his predecessor, choosing participation over abstention. That is a respectable position, providing one takes the fight to the other side. Judging by Washington's tepid reaction to the council vote, that is not happening. Samantha Power, America's ambassador to the U.N., called the accession of the autocrats a "reminder that the council's important work remains unfinished." 

Given the council's weaknesses, it is tempting to dismiss it as irrelevant. And indeed, if the U.S. were leading on democracy and human rights generally, it might be. In his first term, Obama articulated a foreign policy agenda that included support for democracy. In speeches in Cairo and Canberra, the president emphasized the universality of human rights. Support for them, he has said, is "who we are."

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Little to none of this rhetoric has been converted into action. Toward Egypt, the president tacitly approved of a coup against the democratically-elected president, now on trial in Cairo. He received Vietnam's number two ranked Communist Party leader at the White House in the midst of a crackdown on bloggers and dissidents. China rights policy is conducted through a toothless, moribund "dialogue" with Beijing. The administration remained passive in the face of Iran's Green movement following the 2008 election and is not challenging Russia's persecution of opposition figures and rights activists. 

When the president excluded democracy as a core interest of the U.S. foreign policy in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24, he only made explicit what had become completely obvious. The Washington Post described the speech as the "most morally crimped speech by a president in modern times."

Last week's vote is a sign of much bigger problem than the flaws of a U.N. body. The accession of so many dictatorships reflects both their skillful diplomacy and the absence of principle among the democracies. Both need to be challenged.  

Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.

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