Human rights have been a central purpose of the United Nations since its creation after World War II. Equally central over that time has been U.S. leadership on human rights. But in the last few years, the U.S. has boycotted the U.N. Human Rights Council, the most important human rights institution in the world body. Citing institutional flaws and misguided decisions, the U.S. refused to run for a seat in each of the first three council elections, from 2006 to 2008.
This May, the U.N. General Assembly will elect 18 new members to the council. The Obama administration is deciding whether to seek a seat at the table. This time, the U.S. should run and no longer hide.
Like its predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the council's failures often cloud its tremendous potential. The commission, which first met in 1946, had numerous achievements over its 60-year history. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the foundational human rights treaties known as the international bill of rights are products of its work. Yet the commission was scrapped in 2006 after decades of autocratic states voting together to block scrutiny of their human rights records. Criticism and frustration peaked when Sudan, in the midst of the genocide in Darfur, was re-elected to the commission in 2004. As a result, in 2006, the U.N. General Assembly overhauled the commission and created the council by a near-unanimous vote. Despite new membership standards and other changes targeting the commission's flaws, the U.S. was one of four countries to vote against the council's creation. And throughout the last three years, the Bush administration shunned and scolded the council as a failed institution.
On many occasions, the criticism was justified. Several countries that openly flout human rights standards, including China and Saudi Arabia, remain on the 47-member council. Meetings often feature politicized bluster instead of earnest dialogue on human rights issues. And the council has repeatedly and selectively targeted Israel, while failing to address violations in other parts of the world, including the practices of brutal regimes in North Korea and Zimbabwe.
But the U.S. should no longer cede control of the U.N. council to those striving to discredit human rights. What is criticized as institutional failure should instead be viewed as the very reason the council is an indispensable institution: There remain fundamental disagreements on human rights issues in the international community. The scope and application of several basic human rights, including women's rights, religious rights and political rights, remain hotly contested.
The human rights movement is an ideological struggle that requires sustained diplomatic engagement. As with other rights movements, global human rights progress will inevitably be imperfect and incremental. There will be debate, disagreement and setbacks. And where failures at the council occur, countries, not the institution, will continue to be primarily responsible.
Accordingly, the current composition of the council should encourage, not discourage, U.S. participation. The council is an elected forum where competing interests will necessarily jostle for power. Countries with poor human rights records view membership as an opportunity to advance their interests, disgrace the institution, hijack the human rights movement, or all of the above. But including those willing to participate is crucial to the council's credibility and truly universal human rights progress. The human rights movement has long been plagued by a widespread perception that it consists of Western values being imposed by Western countries. For the U.S. to spurn the council because it disagrees with some of its decisions only perpetuates that perception.
For continued human rights progress to occur at the U.N., the council will need strong political and diplomatic leadership. The U.S. remains in the best position to engage its diplomatic and moral authority to encourage collective promotion of international human rights.
Noah Bialostozky, an attorney and Silver Spring resident, is chairman of the Human Rights Council Sub-Committee of the International Law Association, American Branch, and serves on the branch's U.N. Law Committee. His e-mail is email@example.com.