The announcement last Tuesday by the State Department that, for a second straight year, the U.S. would decline to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council inscribes finis on a landmark effort to reform the UN—and suggests that all such efforts are doomed to fail.
In the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the rending of the Security Council over the Iraq war, Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, with an unusually ambitious mandate for UN reform. It issued a report in late 2004, which was largely incorporated in Annan’s own reform package formulated for the UN summit of September 2005. Both the panel and Annan asserted in unusually blunt terms that the longstanding UN Commission on Human Rights had strayed so far from its original purposes that, in Annan’s words, it “cast . . . a shadow on the reputation” of the whole UN. Therefore, it was to be abolished in favor of a new body designed to avoid the faults of the old.
Going into the summit, the U.S. worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Annan toward this goal, combining the clout of Washington with that of the UN establishment, two powerful forces that have often been at cross purposes. Even this alliance, however, proved too weak to achieve its key goals in the design of the new Human Rights Council.
In the hope of assuring a council made up of states that themselves respect human rights, Annan had proposed election by a two-thirds majority. This measure was rejected. Then, in the hope of setting a minimum standard for election to the council, the U.S. proposed that states under UN Security Council sanction for human-rights abuses be barred from membership. This barrier was so nominal that it would have excluded only two of the UN’s 193 members—Sudan and the Ivory Coast. But even this was too much for the UN majority, and it too was rejected.
In the face of these defeats, the U.S. announced last year that it would not seek a seat on the new council, for fear of legitimating a body that might prove as unfaithful to the cause of human rights as its predecessor. The U.S. expressed its hope that the performance of the body would allow us to join in subsequent years. The reality, however, has exceeded our fears.
The old commission would rebuke only a few dictatorships while directing its main fire against Israel. The new Human Rights Council has gone farther. It has remained in almost perpetual session castigating Israel and has not seen fit to utter a word of criticism of any other state. (It did pass one resolution on Darfur. This lauded the government of Sudan for its cooperation. It was supported by all the Muslim members and opposed by all Western members.)
Compared to other UN failings, those of the Human Rights Commission seemed easy to fix. That this has proved utterly impossible speaks volumes about the chances that the institution as a whole can ever be fixed.