The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has long been an embarrassment to the decent nations of the world. Its membership has included the world’s worst abusers of human rights — Sudan, for example, and Cuba and Zimbabwe — who have used their membership to protect themselves and each other from condemnation for their human rights abuses.
So why, in a vote last week in the U.N. General Assembly, did the United States, along with Israel, Palau (population 23,303) and Marshall Islands (population 50,840) vote against creation of a replacement organization, the Human Rights Council, while the rest of the world — 170 nations in all (plus four abstentions) — voted for it?
Behind America’s “no” vote was more than just a grotesque failure of diplomacy. The United States once again appeared to be unwilling to deal seriously with a broadly representative body, its multilateralism limited to handpicked coalitions “of the willing” with feeble claims to legitimacy.
Israel’s complicity had many of us scratching our heads because the abolition of the old politicized commission, which routinely singled out the country, is so clearly in Israel’s interest. Why, in light of a worldwide consensus rejecting the old model, did Israel not embrace the new council, widely viewed as a major step forward?
The story began in earnest at the U.N. World Summit last September, when heads of state finally decided to scrap the discredited Human Rights Commission and start over with a new council. From then until the vote two weeks ago, there were 30 negotiation sessions open to all members of the General Assembly to hammer out the shape, scope and mission of the new body.
America’s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, disdainfully showed up for just one of the 30 sessions, yet minutes after release of the consensus text, he signaled American opposition. In his typically graceless manner, he pronounced that now, after the nations of the world had laboriously devised a consensus text, it was “time… to consider whether it’s time to begin real international negotiations on the text.” Even then, and for the next two weeks — while he threatened to insist on opening the draft to amendments from the floor — the United States referred only to unspecified “deficiencies.”
Last minute demands, especially by a no-show with a lot of power, are usually intended to scuttle a deal — which, given Bolton’s not-so-secret contempt for the U.N., seems to have been the motive. A high-profile failure would have burnished his argument that the U.N. cannot reform itself and should be abandoned.
Among the most important reforms specified in the draft were the method for selecting members of the new Human Rights Council and the procedure for removing nations from membership. In order to erect a high bar against the worst rights abusers, the United States proposed early on that membership would require approval by two-thirds of those General Assembly members voting on a candidate country. And in a move widely seen as a usurpation of the General Assembly’s prerogatives to determine membership of its subsidiary bodies, the United States argued that no country subject to sanctions for human rights violations by the Security Council — which Washington can control with its veto — should be allowed to serve on the new human rights body.
In the process of negotiation, the “two-thirds of those voting” requirement became election by an absolute majority of General Assembly members, or 96 positive votes. In addition, nominees would be voted on one by one, scrapping the old commission’s system of automatic membership upon nomination by a regional bloc. Most important, members would be the first — not the last — to have their own human rights records scrutinized, a move designed to discourage abusers from even applying.
The expectation is that these new requirements will vastly raise the quality of membership on the Human Rights Council. In addition, two-thirds of those present and voting in the General Assembly can suspend the rights of membership of a council member who “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.” Admittedly, this is a high bar, but it provides some assurance that a genocidal government will not sit on the council.
Once the United States announced that it wanted the draft amended, the consensus laboriously built by Jan Eliasson, the Swedish president of the General Assembly, started to crack. Cuba renewed its demands to increase the number of members, for the lowering the threshold for election and for a prohibition on expulsion. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, for its part, threatened to press for restrictions on free expression. Eliasson, though, made it clear that the draft was a take-it-or-leave-it document; if it were open for amendment after the months of negotiation and consensus building, it would surely die a death of a thousand cuts.
Bolton nevertheless continued to piously argue that the proposed reforms did not go far enough, that this rare opportunity for fundamental change should be shelved in favor of more thorough reform. But other nations evidently were no longer prepared to defer to America’s erstwhile leadership in the field of human rights — not after Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and extraordinary renditions. Thus we learn — if, that is, Bolton was in fact truly interested in a stronger resolution — the price the United States is now paying for its surly exceptionalism these past several years.
No one was entirely pleased with the U.N. reform, but every major human rights organization lobbied hard for its approval. And in the end, even the United States was shamed into a half-hearted endorsement of the draft, its “no” vote followed by a pledge of cooperation with the new Human Rights Council.
And Israel? If even Micronesia, among America’s staunchest supporters at the U.N., could vote “yes,” Israel’s lapdog “no” vote is inexplicable — or if the obvious explanation is the also the honest explanation, than the vote was disgraceful. Unless, of course, Israel preferred the explicitly anti-Israel Human Rights Commission of old to a new council with a plausible claim to objectivity that might all the same find Israel’s human rights record wanting.
Kathleen Peratis, a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a trustee of Human Rights Watch.