NEW YORK (JTA) — Durban II has concluded and nearly everyone has gone home. Next month, however, brings an event far more significant and substantive than any racism review document or yet another outrageous speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The United States will formally join the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Unlike the one-shot Durban Review Conference known as Durban II, the Human Rights Council meets several times a year in Geneva in regular session, and includes special sessions (usually to condemn Israel) and the ongoing multi-year review of every country’s human rights record. Its first three years, without benefit of U.S. membership, have been no picnic. The council emerged from the detritus of the former Human Rights Commission, which had earned its reputation as a shamelessly ineffective institution obsessively focused on condemning Israel.
U.S. membership on the council comes none too soon. Canada, the first nation to announce it would boycott Durban II, will soon rotate off as a member of the council. The European Union members on the council are generally well meaning, which is part of the problem. Negotiating a compromise resolution sounds worthwhile, but toning down a blatantly one-sided and unfair anti-Israel resolution to the point where it is only implicitly one-sided does no favors for Israel or the credibility of universal human rights. It only allows European governments to avoid voting “no” on what is objectively an anti-Israel resolution.
Switzerland, which in recent years has joined the United Nations and still believes in its own neutrality, has used its council seat to broker such “compromise” resolutions. Just before Iranian President Ahmadinejad delivered his pro-racism speech at Durban II, he was officially received by the president of Switzerland. The United Nations is obligated to give Ahmadinejad the floor and Switzerland must grant him access to the U.N. Office in Geneva. Inviting him to tea seems gratuitously gracious.
Canada has played a critical role on the council. Even if an active U.S. presence cannot neutralize the anti-Israel majority, effective engagement could at least give the Western members new reasons to stand together in the council.
The council’s first three years were its formative phase, when U.S. leadership within the Western bloc would have been most useful, but better late than never. European diplomats did much heavy lifting ahead of, and during, Durban II. Washington’s decision to stand for council membership sends a clear message of good faith to allies, and the U.S. absence from Durban II demonstrated to all players that our non-negotiable red lines are non-negotiable.
Membership in the Human Rights Council will be a long-term commitment (at least three years) during a period when the full United Nations is also due to consider the future of the council. Will it remain a subsidiary of the General Assembly, or will its status be elevated on a par with the Security Council (very important) and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC — ever heard of it?). As the five-year deadline approaches for this review, the United States will now be in a much stronger position to either rehabilitate the council or put it back in its box if not straight into the recycling bin.
This also needs to be said: The raison d’etre for the U.N. human rights dimension, and part of the reason for U.S. membership in the United Nations at all, is to promote universal human rights. Beyond the imperative to defend Israel, this is the prime motivation for joining the council, as it should be.
The past few years have shown that closing the door and walking away does not automatically turn out the lights, as the rest of the world has a momentum all its own. The United States can skip one marginal review conference on racism without wiping out our moral standing or fatally wounding the premise for universal human rights. Continuing the policy of ‘absent with explanation’ would have ensured both results without even making a good-faith effort. Bring ‘em on.
(Shai Franklin is senior fellow for United Nations Affairs, Institute on Religion and Public Policy.)