WASHINGTON -- Our country did violence to the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt last week. She chaired the nascent U.N. Human Rights Commission and was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At one point during the drafting process in 1948, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote about a procedural dispute:
"The government of the United States had never, of course, been opposed to writing a convention; it simply felt that the attempt would not be practical in these early stages. When it was found that feeling ran high on this subject, we immediately cooperated."
How things have changed. In recent weeks, the United States did all it could to oppose the creation of an improved Human Rights Council to replace the now-dysfunctional commission; the final vote was 170-4. Apart from the three countries that the United States cajoled into joining it in a "no" vote, the only other states who declined to support the council were three human rights abusers: Iran, Belarus and Venezuela abstained.
Now that the council is being formed, we must do our utmost to ensure that the United States is among its first members selected May 9. Next week, members of Congress will visit the United Nations to discuss various reforms, including this one. We will make clear the merits of not only securing an immediate seat at the new council's table but also taking a central role.
This new council replaces a travesty of a commission that, with time, diverged wildly from its original role and made a mockery of international human rights. A commission never could be taken seriously so long as it welcomed the pathological despots of Sudan, authors of the Darfur genocide, as if they occupied the same moral ground on human rights as Denmark and Sweden.
It is true that the new council might not live up to each of our hopes and expectations. The best outcome would have been an ironclad guarantee that the council will shut out human rights abusers. But as the dozen Nobel Peace Prize winners and key human rights groups who supported it will attest, the new council nevertheless offers critical, groundbreaking achievements. Let me highlight three of the most important ones:
It finally and officially debunks the myth that there is a "moral equivalency" among all U.N. member states in the area of human rights. For the first time, membership in a U.N. body will require meeting specific criteria.
It dispenses with another pernicious U.N. practice: automatic acceptance of regional slates for U.N. bodies without a review and individual vote by all member states. Countries now will need to win 96 votes in the General Assembly to gain entry to the council. The U.S., working with our allies, can challenge each and every bogus council candidate and block them by recruiting sufficient support.
It creates a unique opportunity to reclaim the United Nations' human rights mechanism from those forces that have hijacked the commission and used it to launch a vicious and systematic attack against the democratic state of Israel.
Despite feverish attempts by Pakistan, Egypt and others to insert language ratifying the continuance of these attacks, the new council's enacting legislation contains none of the familiar euphemisms asserting an obligation to "protect peoples under foreign occupation."
In light of these improvements, the "no" vote by the United States was a major mistake and a signal of isolation at a time when we strongly need and have sought the support of our Security Council partners. Although it deeply offends the tyrants in Iran and the bullies in Belarus, there is no substitute for U.S. leadership in support of internationally recognized human rights.
It would make absolutely no sense, and would fly in the face of long-standing U.S. foreign policy, for the United States to say we will not be fully engaged in the new council.
A decade after leaving her U.N. duties, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote that Americans "do not demand enough of the people who represent us." She said, "We must make clear that we intend to have responsible and courageous leadership" that shows imagination and enterprise.
I am strongly pressing for a speedy announcement of our country's candidacy for membership in the new U.N. Human Rights Council. Its inaugural session in June will make critical decisions on how it functions and will determine whether all the fuss over the council's creation was worthwhile. For the United States to fail to participate actively in these events would be an enormous mistake.
Tom Lantos of California is the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee and the founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. His contact information is at www.house.gov/lantos.