How Iran Tested the U.S. Strategy of Engagement at the Human Rights Council

Last Friday, Laura Rozen reported that Iran had withdrawn its candidacy for the UN Human Right Council.  This comes as very good news to the United States, which fought hard to keep Iran off the Council. It is also a boon for the Council itself and demonstrated that its process for electing member states–while flawed in some respects–can prevent known abusers from membership. 

Here’s how Iran’s candidacy failed: Every year, many of the seats of the 47 member country body are open to new members, which must be elected by a majority of the UN General Assembly in a secret ballot.  Like other UN bodies the principal of “equitable geographic representation” is maintained by setting aside a set number of seats for each geographical group (i.e. Latin America, Africa, etc). 

This year, there are four open seats for the Asia group that was contested by five countries: The Maldives, Malaysia, Qatar, Thailand and Iran.  According to a US government source, Iran would have had a difficult time winning a contested election, so Iran was doing all it could to convince the Maldives or Qatar to drop out of the race. When it became clear that these efforts were faltering, Iran decided to pull out of the race rather than have a poor showing at the vote. 

Iran’s failed candidacy shows that some of the election procedures of the Human Rights Council can be helpful in steering would-be abusers away from the court. (Remember: the Council itself has a dim view of the Iranian government’s post-election crackdown.)  Iran would have had a difficult time convincing half of the UN General Assembly (about 91 countries) that it deserved membership over, say, The Maldives.  And because the elections proceed by secret ballot, vote trading and vote “buying” are uncertain investments for any country trying to game the system.   To be sure, the system is still somewhat flawed: most of the elections are not contested, which theoretically makes it easier for countries with less than stellar records to slip on the Council. But the Iran case shows that it can work the other way, too.

So what made the difference? I think credit should go to the United States. Iran’s candidacy was a fairly direct test of American diplomacy at the Council. It also posed a test to the rationale underlying the Obama administration’s decision to join the Council — that it would be easier to pursue American interests from the inside rather than on the sidelines.  Here is Susan Rice explaining that to Ben Smith last year:

“We have a record of abject failure from having stayed out. We’ve been out for the duration and it has not gotten better. It’s arguably gotten worse,” she said. “We are much better placed to be fighting for the principles we believe in — protection of human rights universally, fighting against the anti-Israel crap and for meaningful action on issues that we care about and ought to be the top of the agenda, things like Zimbabwe, Sudan [and] Burma — by leading and lending our voice from within.”

Iran’s failed candidacy shows that the Human Rights Council is not an irredeemably flawed institution as some critics would have it. Rather, it shows that with a little diplomatic effort, the United States can help the institution live up to its potential as a forum to promote human rights around the world.