President Obama is about to test an important proposition – that the United States can more effectively improve even the worst global institutions by participating in them than by shunning them.
In this case, the institution is the United Nations Human Rights Council, for which the Obama Administration has applied for U.S. membership, reversing a longstanding policy of the Bush Administration.
When the U.N. General Assembly approves its application in May, as it surely will, the United States will face the challenge of re-directing one of the U.N.’s most notorious and ill-named panels.
The United States can make progress, but only if it seizes the opportunity of council membership to promote its own values of human rights. What it must not do is go along to get along – that is, object too tepidly to the council’s likely activities and, by doing so, give those activities more legitimacy on the world stage.
The United Nations created its Human Rights Council in 2006 to replace its discredited Human Rights Commission. If anything, the council has proved more a human rights embarrassment than its predecessor.
Membership in the 47-seat council is dominated by African and Asian regional groups, which together control 26 seats. These groups, in turn, are dominated by the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
The council includes some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, and it avoids discussion of the world’s worst human rights situations. It has not condemned ethnic cleansing in Sudan, it recently stopped investigating bloodshed in Congo and it largely ignores day-to-day human rights abuses from Cuba to Burma to Zimbabwe.
Instead, the council focuses almost singularly on Israel, the Middle East’s lone democracy but a nation to which many council members are reflexively hostile. The council reserves one permanent agenda item for condemning Israel and another for investigating human rights in the rest of the world, says the Hudson Institute’s Anne Bayefsky, who edits the newsletter www.EyeontheUN.org.
Not surprisingly, the council has issued the vast majority of its condemnations against the Jewish State – more than against all other nations combined. It also has barred Israel from participating in any of its five regional groups through which council members share information and plot strategy.
The council’s other preoccupation of late is a move to outlaw criticism of Islam. It recently passed a resolution that encourages nations to provide legal “protections” against “acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion” that arise from “defamation of religions” or “incitement to religious hatred.” Though it refers to religion in general, the resolution is clearly designed to prevent criticism of Islam. The resolution states that “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human-rights violations and terrorism.” If enacted, such “protections” could severely curtail free speech, including efforts to explore the theological roots of terrorism that emanates from the Middle East and elsewhere.
Obama’s decision to apply for council membership reflects his desire to send a clear message to the global community that, in contrast to President Bush, America’s new leader wants to engage more with allies and adversaries alike.
His decision comes as his administration seeks to develop a new relationship with the Islamic world in particular, highlighted by such steps as Obama’s interview on Al Arabiya TV, his high-profile stop in Turkey at the tail-end of his European trip and his efforts to open discussions between top administration officials and their counterparts in Iran – a U.S. adversary for the last 30 years.
Whether the United States benefits from council membership will depend on what Obama does with it.
Several weeks ago, critics blasted Obama for sending U.S. officials to planning meetings for the upcoming “Durban II” conference, arguing the United States should shun an event that has all the makings of another “Durban I” – the 2001 conference that degenerated into such an orgy of antiAmericanism and anti-Semitism that Secretary of State Colin Powell ordered the U.S. delegation to leave.
In fact, Obama used the Durban II process to send a strong signal about U.S. values. After participating briefly, the administration announced it would not continue to do so unless organizers dropped the Israel-bashing and other unacceptable features of emerging conference documents.
Obama will face similar clashes between council priorities and U.S. values. If he turns these clashes into opportunities to promote our values forcefully, U.S. membership may prove a worthwhile endeavor.