UNITED NATIONS — The Bush administration’s decision not to seek a seat on a newly created United Nations human rights council has Jewish groups worried that America is passing up an opportunity to bolster the defense of human rights and prevent unfair treatment of Israel.
Several major Jewish organizations prudently have expressed understanding for the Bush administration’s argument that it preferred not to join the new U.N. Human Rights Council until the new body proves itself to be an effective watchdog. The Bush administration voted against the final proposal for the new council, but in the end offered to support and fund it, and eventually run for a seat on it next year.
Some Jewish groups have criticized the administration for refusing to engage in a full effort to help shape the nascent council, which was created to supplant the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The earlier commission was widely criticized for being overly politicized and for allowing notorious human rights violators to escape criticism most of the time.
Both the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress had written Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her to support American participation in the council before last week’s decision.
Major human rights advocacy groups as well as several prominent Republicans in Congress, including fierce U.N. critics Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, aired similar misgivings about the Bush administration’s decision not to join the council this year. One notable exception was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
The strongest Jewish criticism of the administration’s decision came from the AJCommittee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, which claimed that the failure to join the council at the beginning would hurt the cause of human rights, isolate America and weaken Israel.
“The first year is when the terms of reference are negotiated and the most valuable American contribution would be membership,” said Felice Gaer, director of the institute.
The WJC was more subdued, merely expressing regret at the administration’s decision while voicing understanding for the administration’s predicament.
“We respect the fact that the U.S. government has balanced multiple and competing considerations in deciding not to apply for membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council at this time,” said the chairperson of the WJC’s American section, Evelyn Sommer, and the section’s executive director, Shai Franklin, in a statement. “We continue to believe the United States would have been a positive force on the Council in 2006, and we are confident this was taken into account.”
Other Jewish groups — including some that had pressed for American participation in the council — said they understood the administration’s arguments that the new body had serious flaws and that being an observer still would allow Washington to play an active role.
“The U.S. had several valid considerations, and they feel they can influence it more from outside,” said the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, who was briefed by John Bolton, American ambassador to the U.N., on the decision. When pressed about his own position, he declined to comment directly, stating that it was the administration’s decision and that the shared objective was to reform the U.N. apparatus dedicated to human rights.
The United States and a handful of close allies — Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands — were the only ones who voted last month against the proposed new council, which is to replace the discredited human rights commission.
Israel, which had considered running for a seat, also announced that it would not apply for membership this year, according to Hoenlein and other Jewish communal sources.
The Israeli mission at the U.N. did not return requests for comment.
While some observers claimed that the stance of the United States reflected the deep divisions within the administration over the council and the U.N. in general, others said that the humiliating prospect of not being able to rally the simple majority of 96 votes needed to be elected to the 47-member council played a role, too. Some U.N. officials and critics of the administration’s position rejected that argument privately, claiming that it was shifting the blame on anti-American sentiment and that Washington easily could garner the necessary votes, especially since the balloting would be secret.
U.N. officials publicly downplayed the impact of America’s decision.
“We welcome the U.S.’s cooperation with the council and their indications that they will participate next year,” said Lars Hjalmar Wide, the U.N. General Assembly’s president’s chief of cabinet.
Another U.N. official close to the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity, was more blunt, arguing that an opportunity had been lost to advance the human rights agenda. He acknowledged that such countries as China and Iran had declared their candidacy for the council this year, but he added that major human rights violators, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, have indicated that they were unlikely to run. “We know the agenda of the council will be built from scratch, and this is why the U.S. absence will weigh,” the U.N. official said. He also lamented that Jewish groups had mobilized only, as he described it, late and tepidly.
“It’s unfortunate, and it will not reflect well on the Israel agenda,” he added, arguing that now Jerusalem would have to count on less reliable allies, such as Western European countries, to defend it at the council. Among the critical issues slated for negotiations this year is the reform of the U.N.’s now-defunct commission’s agenda, most notably the infamous “item 8,” which singled out Israel for harsh criticism through unrelenting attacks and a slew of negative resolutions.