Avoiding Defeat on Human Rights

The decision not to seek a seat on the Human Rights Council indicates how far U.S. credibility has fallen at the United Nations


Article created by the The Century Foundation.

After the Bush administration’s multiple failures to forge common policy with its allies and developing countries at the United Nations on Iraq, nuclear proliferation, human rights, and UN reform, it has at last made a strategically sound decision: the United States will not run for a seat on the UN’s newly constituted Human Rights Council.

The administration’s decision wisely acknowledges that the president’s personal representative to the UN, conservative firebrand John Bolton, cannot win an election for the United States in the General Assembly—not even in the Western group. Rather than face a humiliating defeat at the hands of Portugal or Greece, the administration will not seek a seat for the United States at all.

While politically realistic, the decision not to run constitutes a damning admission that the administration’s belligerent policies have squandered America ’s global leadership. The one-time leader of the Free World and the planet’s pioneering constitutional democracy cannot muster half the votes in an assembly where democracies now constitute the majority.

Administration policies have blighted America’s traditional reputation as a leader on human rights. A government forfeits that mantle when it countenances torture, on graphic display at Abu Ghraib; secretly renders Muslim-surnamed individuals to torturers among Arab secret police; refuses to permit UN rights monitors to see detainees at Guantanamo who have been imprisoned for years but not accounted for; and refuses to compel states to honor consular obligations to foreign nationals accused of capital crimes.

Even with the heavy burden of its arch-conservative policies, the United States could still salvage a majority vote if it had serious diplomatic representation at the United Nations that practiced the politics of coalition-building rather than polarization. We can sustain coalitions if our representatives act as if they believe that the United States shares the aspirations of most of humankind for peace and security, disarmament, improved living standards, and a sustainable environment.

Unfortunately, John Bolton sabotaged Western efforts at last September’s world summit for a strong, comprehensive declaration covering all four of these areas—a declaration that would have spelled out the details of a strong Human Rights Council. Instead, under his direction the United States demanded removal of a pledge to raise aid to improve the most basic living standards—a pledge that President Bush had already affirmed at a summit in Mexico in 2002. He forced deletion of any mention of controlling nuclear weapons. He threw away all the “carrots” to win poorer countries’ support for American reform priorities on human rights.

The president’s recess ambassador shows no patience for building coalitions with his country’s inferiors, opting instead to bully them and ridicule them as “a target-rich environment.” On his watch, U.S. diplomats have all but vanished from the rounds of policy seminars organized in UN circles by nongovernmental organizations and other countries’ delegations.

The U.S. mission was notoriously disengaged in the debate over a reformed human rights council. For all the rhetoric about ensuring that only countries with sterling human rights records should be permitted to serve on it, Bolton’s one fresh proposal was to install the United States and China among five permanent and unaccountable members of the human rights council.

To his credit, Bolton recognized that with its current policies affecting human rights, the United States would fail any litmus test of virtue in the Western group. After long decrying “closed slates” from regional groups that offer no more candidates than the number of seats to be filled, the United States stunned human rights groups by opposing their call to require competitive elections—recognizing that the United States now could lose a free and fair election.

It took some chutzpah for America’s interim representative to denounce the new Council as insufficiently reformed, and then to vote against it at the head of the vast coalition he had assembled of three countries dependent on U.S. aid—Israel, Marshall Islands, and Palau. America’s mission to the UN is led by someone with all the political delicacy of a Tom DeLay, but without the hammer of rewards and punishments—and ideological affinity—that DeLay used to marshal his thin congressional majority.

At least, like DeLay, Ambassador Bolton knows to withdraw rather than face certain defeat in an election. America’s loss of a Human Rights Council election can no longer be explained away in Washington as evidence of the iniquity of the rest of the world. Having learned from Iraq to challenge rather than echo a fraudulent conservative narrative, long supine Democrats showed they were ready to cite an election loss as the irrefutable proof of America’s loss of global leadership under aggressive Bush policies.

And they would be right.