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US to Engage with the Human Rights Council

The new administration in the White House has decided to reverse one of the more controversial of George W. Bush’s policies: disengagement with the Human Rights Council.

At the time of the HRC’s creation, the election of countries such as China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia to council seats was seen as a continuation of the problems of the old Human Rights Commission – namely, the voice it gave to states which routinely abused human rights. John Bolton was especially critical of the election of Cuba to a council seat, and it was decided that on principle the US would not stand for election. In my opinion this was a mistake, as without the US presence on the council the HRC quickly became the same stage for political grandstanding that the old Commission was.

In particular, as I have remarked on this blog before, the HRC has become not so much a tool for promotion of human rights, as a tool for bashing Israel. As of January 2009, half of the council’s special sessions have focused on Israel (no other country in the world has been the focus more than once) and 80% of its condemnatory resolutions have been against that country. The only other states that the Council has ever condemned are North Korea and Myanmar. This contrasts with the extremely light-handed treatment given to serial human rights abusers such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran and Syria. The Nobel Prize-winner Jody Williams, who headed a mission to Darfur under an HRC mandate, found persuading the council to accept her recommendations on the matter so difficult that she was lead to remark:

In Geneva, it was harder than in the refugee camps… From my experience, it is a club of 47 nations who see their main task as being to cover each other’s butt instead of defending, protecting and promoting human rights in countries where governments violate the people they are supposed to protect.

It is to be hoped that firm US engagement and (presumably) election to the council will provide a counterbalance in the appallingly one-sided talking shop which the HRC is in danger of becoming. While the human rights record of the US is far from perfect, especially during the Cold War when the country supported odious dictatorial regimes, it is inarguably the case that it has been and remains one of the strongest human rights advocates on the international stage. In particular, Condoleeza Rice was one of the foremost proponents of firm action to solve the crisis in Darfur. Working ‘from the inside’, the US can perhaps press for more work on Darfur and the general human rights situations in places like Iran – though whether it will be successful in this, in light of Ms. Williams’ comments, is unclear to say the least.

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