The Obama Watch

Sleeping With the Retrograde

The Obama administration gets ever cozier with the UN's human rights defilers.

By 5.28.10

Contrary to what many might suppose, there is much continuity between George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the sphere of foreign affairs and counter-terrorism.

Guantanamo Bay remains open for business; renditions still occur, as do wiretaps; and conducting drone strikes on Islamist terrorists -- though the Obama Administration won't call the targets that -- have actually increased.

Bush in his second term stopped calling for the release of human rights activists in Egypt and Libya, whose temporary release he had procured in his first term. Obama has been faithful to that inglorious silence too.

Yet, as expected, there has also been much change in 16 months: For example, Bush refused to have the U.S. join the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), but Obama did just one year ago.

Why? To "promote universality, transparency, and objectivity" within the Council, according to the Administration's document, Human Rights Commitments and Pledges of the United States of America; to "engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system," according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and because "the promotion and protection of human rights internationally is a core value of the United States and a fundamental cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy," according to UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

Universality, transparency, objectivity, improvement, promotion and protection of human rights are in desperately short supply in the HRC, because it suffers from a permanent majority of dictatorships. Non-democratic African and Asian regimes exercise an unbreakable controlling majority of 26 of its 47 seats. It is these dictatorships that set the Council's agenda and determine its vote. In four years, the HRC has closed off investigation of the worst human rights abuses in Belarus, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Provision does exist for suspending council members for human-rights abuses, but to do so would require approval by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly -- which has been unable to muster a simple majority merely to condemn the genocide in Sudan. Such a provision is clearly a dead letter.

Now, the Obama Administration has announced that it will join the UN Alliance of Civilizations, another body dominated by autocracies, to work for "improved understanding and cooperative relations among nations and peoples."

But does the record of the HRC since America's embrace of it justify another such attempt to improve the retrograde?


One month after the Obama Administration joined the HRC, it terminated investigation into human rights abuses in Congo.

It was the HRC that commissioned the Inquiry into the Gaza hostilities, presided over by South African Apartheid-era hanging judge, Richard Goldstone. The Goldstone Report perverted international legal norms and procedures to find Israel guilty of war crimes in Gaza. To its credit, the Obama Administration found its voice to oppose further UN action based on this report. But its presence on the HRC did nothing to forestall or alter this demonization of a fellow democracy -- or prevent the UN General Assembly from endorsing it.

This April, the Obama Administration's presence on the HRC did not stop it from electing a serial human rights abuser Iran, a country distinguished by its public hangings of homosexuals. The Obama Administration had to engage in a back room deal to have Iran withdraw its candidacy -- but at a steep price: that Iran be elected unopposed to the UN Women's Rights Commission.

A couple of weeks ago, America's presence on the Council also counted for nothing when 155 out of 192 member states voted for another serial human rights abuser, Libya, to receive a seat on the HRC. So powerless did America appear that Ambassador Rice could not bring herself to even condemn the decision and fell back on the novel argument "the United States doesn't reveal for whom we vote."

This will surely surprise those who recall the U.S. public fight in 2003 to keep Libya off the HRC's predecessor, the Human Rights Commission.

Meanwhile, the HRC continues to ignore the opposition of democratic states towards criminalizing what its advocates term "defamation of religions" -- a measure designed in practice to silence criticism of just one religion -- Islam. US opposition within the HRC has been consistent -- and ineffective.

In the words of veteran UN watcher, Claudia Rosett, the HRC remains a "'reformed,' renamed, but unimproved reincarnation" of its discredited predecessor. U.S. membership of the HRC has availed the cause of human rights nothing. The Obama Administration should learn from the experience, withdraw from it, and give the Alliance of Civilizations a miss.

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.