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Published in The Wall Street Journal, April 6, 2009
Beware of the U.N. Human Rights Council
Obama should be careful about lending legitimacy to bad actors.


Last week the Obama administration announced its intention to seek membership in a body America has for years shunned: the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is perhaps the starkest illustration yet of what officials have billed as a "new era of engagement," and was breathlessly hailed as a toppling of Bush-era isolationist tactics.

But the Human Rights Council is far from the symbol of positive engagement proponents of the decision would like it to be. Joining plunges the U.S. headlong into one of the most notorious quagmires in international politics. American officials will have to walk a razor's edge between instigating reform and legitimizing the Council's colorful, often sinister, history.

The Council's most recent session saw the body voting to end its mandate to investigate the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even as that nation lurches into ethnic bloodshed. A Pakistani resolution against "defamation of religions" passed with ease despite being universally decried by human rights groups as a thinly veiled effort to curtail freedom of expression and suppress minority sects.

The news was unsurprising for anyone familiar with the Council. The body has declined to issue a single condemnation of Sudan for its ethnic cleansing in Darfur. As fresh violence convulsed Darfur last year, the Council responded by dismissing the team of experts tasked with monitoring the region, then disregarding reports from a fact-finding mission that implicated the Sudanese government in torture, rape and mass murder.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 26 other countries -- including China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe -- have been ignored by the Council. It has instead diverted an implausible portion of its resources to the constant, fevered condemnation of Israel: 26 of its 32 condemnations have been against that country. During its most recent session, the Council issued no fewer than five resolutions condemning Israel -- more than all its resolutions concerning other countries combined.

The recent addition of "Universal Periodic Reviews" -- compelling the Council to examine all U.N. states, not just a narrow selection of their choosing -- sparked hopes for improvement. But periodic reviews of China, Cuba and other systematic rights abusers have been farcical displays of politicized whitewashing. The Council, even U.N. Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon conceded, "has clearly not justified all the hopes that so many of us placed on it."

The Bush administration took a hard line on the Council, subjecting it to withering invectives. It even withheld America's share of the body's budget last year. That served to reinforce perceptions of American isolationism and left the Council's few reform-minded members, such as Canada, stranded.

The Obama administration's shift is a welcome step; the U.S. is overdue to apply its diplomatic weight to improve the behavior of Council members. But the merits of formal membership are less obvious. America's bid to join may represent too hasty an embrace of a body that still needs fundamental restructuring, not incremental improvements.

The U.S. is already able to flex its diplomatic muscle both behind the scenes and via a right for nonmembers to testify before the Council at will. Formally wielding a vote is unlikely to increase American influence. Because the Council is structured according to geographic bloc, America's seat will simply supplant another member of the "Western Europe and Other States" group, which already votes along almost uniformly progressive lines.
America’s decision has, however, born new hope. One delegate described the atmosphere at the Council’s Geneva headquarters as “electric,” with young American diplomats long exiled to “lolling over coffee outside the assembly hall” now springing to action.

Officials will have to leverage that atmosphere to call for serious reform. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., should urge that the review of Council policies by the General Assembly -- currently slated for April 2011 -- be undertaken as soon as possible. She should work to ensure that the Universal Periodic Review system, still in its infancy, be strengthened and made less politically manipulable. She should fight for expanded scrutiny of countries beyond Israel, and for specific condemnations of regimes responsible for mass atrocities, starting with Sudan.

How diligently the Obama administration pursues these goals will determine whether America will act as a catalyst for change -- or lend its imprimatur to the world's most discredited international body as it spirals destructively out of control.

Mr. Farrow, currently writing a book on America's use of proxy armies, has worked on human rights issues at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the U.N. He is a student at Yale Law School.

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