We’ve rushed out a story on the Obama administration decision to compete for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the consequent Jewish concerns. Now I’m told that top State Department officials just briefed Jewish leaders in a conference call.
Bush administration policy was to boycott the HRC because it consistently singles out Israel, ignores major abusers like China, and is stacked with oppressors.
Democrats, backed by a number of Jewish groups, had opposed that policy, believing the United States could maintain a moderating influence as long as it made clear that it opposed the council’s excesses.
We refer in the story to concerns by the ADL and the WJC, as well as the cautious welcome from U.N. Watch, which is affiliated to the American Jewish Committee.
Congressional Democrats – including Jewish lawmakers – have Obama’s back on this one, which should dampen for now any expectation that the White House will roll back this decision. Here’s Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee:
I strongly support the administration’s decision to engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council by running for a seat this year. This global forum has become increasingly dysfunctional and politicized, with virtually no guidance from the United States.
For too long the United States has sat on the sidelines. In fact, during the past several years the Council’s pathological focus on demonizing Israel has intensified to the point that genuine human rights crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan and other countries have essentially escaped scrutiny. The time is ripe to take a more positive and active role in challenging the Council and in speaking out about genuine human rights atrocities. In two years, the Human Rights Council faces a mandated five-year review. By participating in the process as a member of the Council, the Obama Administration can begin working to bring about a much-needed overhaul.
Here’s the full State Department announcement:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice announce that the United States will seek a seat this year on the United Nations Human Rights Council with the goal of working to make it a more effective body to promote and protect human rights.
The decision is in keeping with the Obama Administration’s "new era of engagement" with other nations to advance American security interests and meet the global challenges of the 21st century.
“Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy” said Secretary Clinton. “With others, we will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system to advance the vision of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. The United States helped to found the United Nations and retains a vital stake in advancing that organization’s genuine commitment to the human rights values that we share with other member nations. We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies.”
"Those who suffer from abuse and oppression around the world, as well as those who dedicate their lives to advancing human rights, need the Council to be balanced and credible," said Ambassador Rice. "The U.S. is seeking election to the Council because we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council."
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the UN system made up of 47 elected members whose mission is to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights globally. The next round of elections to the Council will be held on May 15th in the UN General Assembly in New York. Members will be elected to a three-year term. The Council was created in March 2006, and is scheduled to undergo a formal review of its structure and procedures in 2011, which will offer a significant opportunity for Council reform.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center wants U.S. membership tied to changes at the HRC:
“It’s no secret that until now the UNHRC–from Darfur to Tibet–has enabled governments to cover up their own dismal human rights records, instead of standing up for the victims of genocide and terror," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “To date the only country guaranteed to be singled out, over and over again for condemnation, for real or imagined crimes has been the State of Israel,” he added.
Cooper indicated that a senior U.S. diplomat had informed him of this move at a recent meeting at the UN in New York. “We hope that that the Obama Administration’s move will strengthen the cause of human rights, but if they discover that it will just be business as usual at the United Nations, that the U.S. will have the courage and conviction to leave,” Cooper concluded.
And the Republican Jewish Coalition is outraged:
We are outraged to learn that President Barack Obama has decided to change the Bush administration’s policy of boycotting the U. N. Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council is an arena in which undemocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Angola, have equal standing with truly free countries such as Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.
The Council’s record of upholding human rights is abysmal. The Council has failed to address some of the most serious human rights abuses of our time, including those taking place in Darfur. It is especially blind to human rights abuses by its own member countries.
On the other hand, the Council is a central venue for the most virulent Israel-bashing. Anne Bayefsky has reported that the Council, "has adopted more condemnations of Israel than all the other 191 U.N. states combined, while terminating human rights investigations on the likes of Iran, Cuba and Belarus.
Much of the Council’s agenda is at the behest of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the resolutions it submits to the General Assembly are unremittingly anti-Israel and anti-Western. The Bush administration, and other Western governments, have strongly opposed attempts in the Human Council to pass resolutions that would limit the right of free speech in democracies.
President Bush understood that there could be no positive result from American participation in an international body so inherently hostile to Israel and so fundamentally incapable of acting in defense of human rights. That President Obama has chosen to reverse American policy on this question is a blow to the U.S.-Israel relationship and a cause for deep concern among American Jews.
UPDATE: Count B’nai B’rith International among the groups backing the U.S. decision as an opportunity to reform the Council:
B’nai B’rith International hopes the Obama administration will make it a top priority to eliminate the council’s fixation on Israel, and to eliminate the annual special review of Israel, the only nation singled out in this way.
Without a major overhaul, the Human Rights Council will continue with its unacceptable and unproductive business as usual, with some of the world’s biggest human rights abusers preventing real action on the most pressing global human rights issues.
It is incumbent upon the U.S. government to parlay its renewed credibility on the world stage into true and lasting reform of what has the potential to be an instrument that truly promotes and protects human rights. Created just three years ago, the Human Rights Council has fallen far short of its mission.