Score One for the NGOs

The Bush Administration and other critics of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council are quick to decry every slight setback in Geneva or New York as proof that the entire organization should fold up and go home. Since that won’t happen, the U.S. State Department has decided to abandon the field to its adversaries.

But while the Bush Administration remains missing in action, another story is unfolding — one that shows the growing influence of the global human rights movement and its ability to strengthen the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Six months ago, it seemed inevitable that Egypt would take over the presidency of the Human Rights Council, the United Nations’ main forum for monitoring state behavior on human rights. Africa’s turn at the rotating presidency was coming up, and no country had expressed any willingness to stand against Egypt, the Africa group chair. Last week, however, it was Nigeria, not Egypt, that was elected to the presidency, marking a major victory for human rights organizations in Africa and around the world. Nigeria is far from perfect as a council president, but it is certainly better than Egypt.

Egypt’s human rights record is cause for serious international concern. Its autocratic government has engaged in torture and persecuted political dissidents and religious minorities. Its actions at the UN have also been harmful. Egypt has led efforts to prevent action on human rights crises, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, attempted to silence nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Geneva, and hamstrung the council’s independent experts. An Egyptian presidency of the Human Rights Council would have cast a dark cloud over an already troubled body, consigning serious human rights issues to the United Nations’ backburner for at least the next year.

When African NGOs learned that Egypt was likely to run unopposed for the Council’s presidency, they took action. Forty-two organizations in twenty countries wrote to all of the African heads of state, demanding that Africa be “represented in this role by a recognized human rights leader from our continent.” Given Egypt’s effective diplomacy at the United Nations, it was never likely that this NGO coalition would achieve much. But through a sophisticated advocacy campaign in democratic and democratizing countries, the NGOs convinced their governments not to support a potentially embarrassing and regressive African presidency.

Nigeria also has serious human rights problems. A failure of the rule of law in that country has fueled corruption, violence and persecution. But as robust court proceedings challenging the legitimacy of Nigeria’s 2007 elections show, Nigeria is also striving for a better, more democratic form of government. Unlike Egypt, Nigeria has not attempted to undermine the council’s work. African NGOs believe they can work with the Nigerian presidency — something they would not have been able to achieve with Egypt.

In another recent example, NGOs joined forces to influence the election of new council members. An international coalition of human rights defenders from Sri Lanka and around the world opposed Sri Lanka’s candidacy based on that country’s failure to uphold human rights or cooperate with UN human rights institutions. After losing the election, Sri Lanka’s government credited this “aggressive campaign” for their defeat. Last year, a similar fate fell upon Belarus.

Civil society’s success in derailing Egypt and Sri Lanka is an encouraging sign that the human rights movement hasn’t given up on demanding a credible UN human rights system. Yet if a loose network of NGOs can influence the council for the better, how can the Bush administration justify its recent decision to walk away?

This is the moment for all those concerned with promoting human rights to press the council’s members hard, using every influence to make the body a more progressive and effective instrument. But on June 6th, the United States informed our allies in Geneva that it would withdraw from the council’s work. Listing several real problems with recent council actions, including its backsliding on freedom of expression issues and poor handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Washington decided to throw in the towel. This unfortunate decision not only overlooks the council’s positive actions on crises ranging from Burma to Darfur and the useful new tool of periodic review of all countries’ human rights record, it ignores what NGOs have demonstrated in pushing back against Egypt and Sri Lanka’s candidacies — that with real commitment, human rights defenders can make the council and the United Nations work better.

Over the last several years, the Bush administration has belittled or ignored international institutions, diminishing both the institutions and United States itself. When pressed, the excuse often given is that the United States was simply unable to exert any positive influence and so decided to give up. The election of new council members and a new president shows how much NGOs can achieve by persuading democratic countries in the developing world to stand up for human rights. Instead of yielding the floor to autocrats, the United States should stay in the game and look for a way to succeed rather than for a way out.