Why Scrutiny of the United States at the Human Rights Council is a Good Thing

On Friday, the human rights record of the United States will be the subject of a debate at the UN Human Rights Council.  The discussion is happening under the auspices of what is called the “Universal Periodic Review” in which every UN member state comes under scrutiny of the council once every four years.   Other than a few hours of discussion, no action is taken.

UN bashers are predictably working themselves into a frenzy about this apparent affront. After all, there are countries with much worse human rights records than the United States!  And some of these countries will participate in the discussion on Friday!  Pamela Geller says President Obama’s decision to participate in the Human Rights Council, is “More proof that he is either an America-hater or a madman.”  Israel Matzav says this is “as absurd as it gets.”  The Jawa Report and Astute Bloggers pile on further condemnations.

The thing is, if you actually care about human rights–as opposed to say, scoring cheap shots against the Obama administration and UN–you ought to applaud the fact that the United States is participating in the Universal Periodic Review.  This is a mechanism that has led to tangible improvement of human rights around the world.   There are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, governments around the world do take seriously how other countries perceive their commitment to human rights. When it comes time for their own Universal Periodic Review, they tend to accelerate progress on certain human rights issues for which they might otherwise come under criticism.

For example, Human Rights Watch notes that a head of its review in June 2009 Saudi Arabia ended the juvenile death penalty, extended protections to foreign workers, and made new commitments on women’s rights.   In an International Herald Tribune op-ed today, the heads of the UN Association of the United States cite how Ecuador followed up its review by collaborating with the U.N. to train its police force on human rights and to improve the prison system.

The point is,  most countries respond positively to the kind of peer pressure that the UPR inspires.  For this peer pressure to be maximally effective, the UPR needs the support of everyone, including the United States.   By opening itself up to criticism, the United States is strengthening the Universal Periodic Review’s ability to function as a catalyst for human rights around the world.