Monday, February 13, 2006

Bolton on the UN Human Rights Commission

I completely agree with Julian's dire assessment of the UN Human Rights Commission. But before we get too carried away lauding the U.S.'s reform efforts, it's worth noting that Ambassador Bolton's most recent suggestion for "reform" is to guarantee all five permanent members of the Security Council permanent seats (presumably with veto power) on the new Human Rights Council, as well. Mark Leon Goldberg at the always informative Bolton Watch reports on the implications -- and irony -- of that proposal:
At the UN right now, negotiations are currently underway over the membership criteria and mandate for a new Human Rights Council that would replace a Human Rights Commission that had long ago become discredited for including such bastions of human freedom like Sudan and Libya. During these negotiations, Ambassador Bolton has made it clear that one of his principle goals at the moment is to secure the United States a seat on the Council. To that end, Bolton proposed that the five permanent members of the Security Council also be guaranteed seats on the Human Rights Council. This, of course, that means Russia and China would also be given free lifetime memberships to the club.

It’s unclear, however, how widely shared this view is among others in the administration. Earlier this week, for example, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Mark Lagon spoke to the Congressional Human Rights caucus on this issue and never brought up P-5 membership in his opening statement. For his part, Bolton articulated the merits of P-5 membership in great detail at a press briefing attended by yours truly a couple of weeks ago.

I happen to agree with Bolton’s broader point that having the US on the Human Rights Council will make it a stronger body. But if the only way to guarantee US membership is by extending an offer to China and Russia than its hard to see how the new council can be much of an improvement over the current discredited Human Rights Commission. Not withstanding China’s own horrible human rights records, they—as opposed to the US—are far more willing to defend at the United Nations unsavory regimes who routinely abuse their own citizens. A lot of the inaction over Darfur at the UN, for example, stems from the fact that China buys a lot of oil from Sudan (and to a lesser extent, because Russia sells a lot of advanced weaponry to them).

Presumably, Bolton fears that if the US is excluded from the Council, it will just be another forum that countries can use to vent their anti- Americanism. Still, it’s hard for me to see how, exactly, that this is much of a threat to American interests. Other countries can complain till their blue about rendition, torture and Guantananmo, but that hasn’t changed our behavior at all. Really, the only influence that the Council is likely to be able to yield will be over countries like Zimbabwe, Burma or any number of sub-equatorial countries that are weak enough to have to respond to demands made by the United Nations.

Bolton sees US membership on the new Council as an end itself in the negotiations. If that remains the case as the negotiations continue, and P-5 membership is guaranteed, then the new council will just mirror the bad old days when countries sought membership for the sole purpose of avoiding condemnation over their own human rights practices.


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