UN Forum on Human Rights: Stay and Fight or Walk Away?

The ascension of Republicans in the Congress, most notably Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, means the Obama administration will face a lot more scrutiny, if not outright hostility, toward its policy of principled engagement on human rights at the United Nations. There are few foreign policy debates where the differences between the two sides are starker.

The Bush administration chose not to participate in the Human Rights Council when it was established in 2006, creating the opportunity for countries like Cuba, China and Pakistan to dominate the new body’s early years. Not surprisingly, with the United States not exercising leadership, the Council got off to a rocky start, its early sessions marred by excessive criticism of Israel at the expense of investigating other human rights crises. The Bush administration’s decision to abandon the field to rights-abusing governments at a critical time in the new body’s formation had a predictable result.

The Obama administration did an immediate u-turn upon entering the White House. It won a seat on the Council and appointed a new ambassador to handle the growing volume of diplomatic groundwork required to get things done in Geneva. The State Department’s team of diplomats and lawyers have worked overtime to challenge the spoilers on the Council and have won important fights along the way. It secured a new mandate to monitor violations of freedom of association, a growing phenomenon around the world. It got the Council to address new urgent human rights situations in Guinea, Kyrgyzstan and Cote d’Ivoire and kept Sudan on the agenda. It kept up international pressure on the military junta in Burma, pushing for a commission of inquiry into abuses, something Rep. Ros-Lehtinen herself supports. It lobbied successfully to oppose Iran’s candidacy for a seat on the Council, leading Iran to drop its campaign. And it consulted widely and constructively with groups around the United States to assess our own human rights record as part of a new mechanism that requires every state to be reviewed once every four years. Its leadership in forging cross-regional coalitions has made a difference on both offense and defense in the often brutal hand-to-hand diplomatic combat that takes place in the world’s most important forum on human rights.

Now, a growing chorus of conservative voices is calling on the United States to cut and run. New legislation is being introduced by Rep. Ros-Lehtinen to terminate any U.S. funding to the Human Rights Council and to demand that Washington not seek a second term. They would rather yield the floor to the likes of Cuba, Egypt and China than stand and fight for the universal rights that we Americans consider our precious birthright.

Some of the skirmishing on the Hill around this issue—like the tilted “briefing” that Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen is hosting this week—could be dismissed as mere grandstanding. But it fits within a larger frame of the Republican ideology that appears to be ascendant—that the United States, as the exceptional nation born in liberty, stands above others and should not be judged in accordance with universal norms of human rights. Nor should its purity be defiled by talking to governments that regularly violate their citizens’ human rights. While Senate action on such legislation may be unlikely, House passage nonetheless would put pressure on Obama’s advisors to reconsider their multilateral engagement strategy. It would also greatly discourage the many brave human rights defenders around the world who count on the United States to lead the charge for human rights at the UN. No one who believes in the spread of democracy and human rights would want that result.

Is the Human Rights Council doing all it can to fulfill its mandate to protect human rights? Certainly not. Can the Human Rights Council be improved, as the United States and its allies seek to do during the current five-year review period? Probably, with Washington’s leadership. But should the United States walk away from debating our adversaries on the most fundamental human rights that we cherish and spill blood and treasure to help others secure? There should be no doubt that now, as governments from Tunis to Cairo to Caracas face increasing pressure to respect basic rights, is the time to stand up and fight for what we believe in.