The Human Rights Council: In It to Win It

April 26, 2012|Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) certainly has its flaws, but it is in remarkably better shape than it was three years ago when the Obama Administration decided to run for a seat for the first time. Under the leadership of the Ambassador Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. has undeniably changed the dynamics within the body to make it a more credible and effective institution. Engagement at the HRC has advanced U.S. national interests and helped to restore the U.S.'s reputation as a global leader in human rights. Yet as its first term comes to an end, there are rumors that the U.S. may pull out of the race for re-election rather than risk defeat during a presidential election year at home. Though it faces tough competition, this is a winnable race for the U.S. and a second term is well worth the fight.

There are a number of reasons that complicate what should be a "shoo-in" election for the U.S. To begin with, the U.S. is competing against four European countries for just three seats and vote-trading among European Union countries is making it difficult for the U.S. to get the commitments it needs to proceed with confidence.

While it is the General Assembly that elects HRC members, the UN's five regional blocs first nominate candidate countries. Very often, regional blocs present "clean" slates (i.e. slates with as many candidates as open seats), which undermines the idea of electing members based on their human rights records, and virtually renders the election in the General Assembly meaningless. The U.S. and others in its regional bloc, known as WEOG (Western European and Others Group) have been guilty of this in past years, but have pledged to run a competitive slate this year to encourage other regions to do so based on the following rationale: every time there has been a competitive election, the worst human rights violator was defeated.

Another complication is that the HRC election will likely fall right around the same time as the U.S. presidential election. Previously, HRC elections were held in May and membership cycles began in June, but a procedural change was adopted last year that aligns HRC membership with the calendar year, thus pushing elections back to the fall. With the U.S. elections falling on November 6, it is unlikely that the HRC election, which the UN says will happen "sometime in the month of November" would precede the presidential election or that it would even matter at that late point.

Second, there is a legitimate concern that countries might be hesitant to vote for the U.S. not knowing the result of their presidential election. But, as any policy choice this Administration makes in an election year, it is wise to project confidence, operating as if it will win, rather than demonstrate that it is considering that it might lose, especially in the international sphere.

While these considerations do complicate the re-election campaign, they do not outweigh the benefits of a second term at the HRC or change the fact that this is still a winnable race. A second term at the HRC would not only allow the U.S. to build on some key successes at the HRC, which include new mandates on Iran, Libya, and Syria, and groundbreaking work to promote LGBT rights. It would also allow to the U.S. to push harder on challenging issues it faced in its first term, such as normalizing the HRC's relationship with Israel. Moreover, with China, Cuba, and Russia all rotating off the HRC this year, the U.S. will have the unique opportunity to work with allies to enhance the body's effectiveness and promote human rights. This is a critical period for the HRC, and it is a missed opportunity if the U.S. chooses to run in 2013 instead of this year.

It is also important to consider the flipside of this argument. If the U.S. pulls out of the race after declaring and confirming its candidacy, it will join the ranks of Syria and Iran, which both withdrew in previous years in the face of certain defeat.

The U.S. is well-regarded at the HRC because of its willingness to work across regional blocs to get things done. Take, for example, the recent U.S. led resolution promoting accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka that had previously failed when other countries tried to lead the initiative. Robust diplomacy, and yes, a little chain-pulling, can get the U.S. where it needs to be in terms of votes to be re-elected to the HRC. In 2010, within a number of weeks, the U.S. was able to turn around 40 votes in the General Assembly to support a resolution condemning violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. With some effort, the U.S. is certainly capable of the 97 votes required for re-election and doing so will be well worth it.

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