Why Americans should be concerned about human rights reform

March 09, 2006|By JULIE MERTUS

WASHINGTON -- Americans have shown little interest in human rights reform at the United Nations. Reports that a new U.N. Human Rights Council will likely soon replace the much-maligned U.N. Human Rights Commission are met with a blank stare.

Why should people in the U.S. care?

In these days of top 10 lists, perhaps it is useful to boil down all the many reasons for caring about U.N. human rights reform into an easily digestible format. So, without further delay, the top 10 reasons are:

10. Our government has made it our business. The Bush administration has expressed support for a U.N. Human Rights Council. Engaged U.S. citizens of all political persuasions should be wondering what is happening here.

9. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, has fashioned a negotiating strategy that undermines the entire process. The idea was to create a less-political human rights body with the ability to condemn all human rights violations, including those committed by its own members.

8. The new plan is a good one that deserves our support. Among its most compelling components, countries with horrible human rights records would be kept off the council. When something so clearly sensible comes along, we should affirmatively support it.

7. We put a tremendous amount of resources into this organization, so we might as well get our money's worth. We might bicker over what it means to get value for money at the United Nations, but a strong argument can be made that we could do better to protect our investment.

6. If we don't find a way to dominate leadership on U.N. human rights reform, our enemies will find a way. We must find a way to exercise influence in international institutions such as U.N. human rights bodies because, like it or not, doing so has become a sign of state power.

5. More than a sign of power, human rights are power. The Bush administration does not want to lose an opportunity to use human rights to spread U.S.-style democracy.

4. It is within our national interest to have a functioning United Nations that has at least some ability to promote U.S. values. The blunders of the U.N. human rights machinery have cast a shadow over the reputation of the entire United Nations.

3. The position our leaders take on human rights shapes how we will live in the world. We should insist that they take our interconnectedness as human beings seriously.

2. Our country's reputation is on the line. Americans like to be thought of as good people who care about others. The playground bully and go-it-alone attitude that has characterized much of the Bush administration has deeply undermined this image we have of ourselves. Constructive U.S. involvement in the creation of a new U.N. human rights body would help turn our image around.

1. Our attention span on human rights does far more than keep our government in check and promote a positive image of our country. The degree to which we care about human rights shapes who we are as a people. Do we believe in democracy, justice and the moral equality of all human beings? Or are we selfish, arrogant, isolated and disengaged?

These are reasons enough to care.

Julie Mertus, a professor of human rights and international ethics at American University, is the author of "The United Nations and Human Rights." Her e-mail is mertus@american.edu.

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