Whither the Human Rights Council?

Writing in The Nation, Barbara Crossette notes that the Obama administration will be faced with two early “tests” of its approach to international human rights norms and institutions: 1) whether or not to participate in the forthcoming anti-racism “Durban Review Conference” in late April; and 2) whether or not to join the Human Rights Council.

Boonstra has got the debate around the review conference pretty well covered. For now, I want to focus on the Human Rights Council, because although as both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton never definitively said whether or not they would seek to join the Human Rights Council, some of their current subordinates have expressed strong opinions in the past. One of them is the new Undersecretary of State for Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter.

First, some background on the council: In 2005, pretty much everyone agreed that the old Commission on Human Rights should be scrapped. Too many countries could join the commission too easily and human rights abusers would routinely join the commission simply to order to avoid condemnation by it. In 2006, the UN General Assembly voted to create a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited commission. In the new council, a smaller number of countries would be elected to the council by a 2/3rd vote, and all member states would come under periodic review.

The United States was one of only a small handful of countries to vote against creating the new Council, arguing that membership was not restrictive enough. In its remaining years in office, the Bush administration declined to run for a spot on the Council and took a fairly hands off approach to its work.

A number of foreign policy and human rights experts disagreed with the Bush administration’s stance. As I mentioned earlier, one of those prominent foreign policy experts was Slaughter. At the time, she bemoaned the administration’s decision in post on TPM Cafe, “The job now is to get ourselves elected and work to get other countries who are serious about human rights elected while blocking in [Human Rights Watch executive director] David Roth’s words, ‘governments that systematically repress their people.'” [Emphasis mine.]

I happen to agree. The United States is better off working through the council than pretending it does not exist. Soon, though, the Obama administration will have to decide one way or the other. The next round of Council elections are in May.