UNITED NATIONS — There was little the American ambassador here, Susan Rice, could do today to stop the General Assembly from voting Libya and other known rights abusers for a seat on the Human Rights Council, but instead of expressing outrage, she chose to praise the United Nations’s least praiseworthy body.
Ms. Rice couldn’t even bring herself to condemn Libya’s specific human rights record or even tell reporters how America voted in the General Assembly, where 155 of the 192 members deemed the Colonel Gadhafi tyranny fit to sit in judgment of other countries’ human rights record.
The game, it turns out, was rigged, 14 countries having run for 14 available seats on the 47-member Geneva-based rights body. They were all pre-selected by regional groups, some of which include a plurality of countries that care little about human rights violations within their own borders. For countries that do, there was little recourse other than voting against the most flagrant violators and publicizing their opposition.
“As you know, having covered this institution for a while, the United States doesn’t reveal for whom we vote,” Ms. Rice told a reporter who asked about how she had voted on Libya and other rights violators like Mauritania, Angola, Qatar, Thailand, and Malaysia, who secured their new council seats. “I’m not going to sit here and name names,” Ms. Rice said.
Libya received the fewest number of votes in today’s secret ballot, and diplomats say most Western countries likely withheld support. Is Ms. Rice acting the tactful diplomat, assuming that criticizing Libya now would prevent unnecessary Geneva clashes later? Is she trying to maintain the careful balance that Washington has tried to strike of late in its relations with Tripoli?
Either way, Ms. Rice oddly declined to oppose publicly Libya’s council seat. An American diplomat told me that keeping a secret U.N. ballot secret was a long tradition that both Republican and Democrat administrations hold dear.
But in 2003, in a similar circumstance, America openly and publicly fought against Libya’s chairmanship of the Commission on Human Rights. It was that public American fight against Mr. Gadhafi that led enough U.N. members to recognize how ill-suited the Commission was for dealing with human rights. It also hastened the demise of that futile body.
Locked in several other struggles with the Bush Administration, Secretary General Annan, in office at the time, proposed forming a new rights body, and the Human Rights Council was born in 2006.
The American envoy at the time, Ambassador Bolton, warned that the new body was no real improvement and predicted that it will soon prove even worse than its predecessor. The Bush administration voted against the Council’s establishment, declined to run for a seat, and withheld funding from it.
As soon as President Obama acceded, Ms. Rice lobbied for a change of course. America soon joined and cheered the Human Rights Council even as the Council resumed its Israel-bashing, including the establishment of the Goldstone Commission to assure Israel’s condemnation for alleged war crimes in Gaza. Geneva also maintained its failure to address seriously flagrant violations anywhere else, including in Sudan, North Korea, Sri Lanka or Burma or to air the stifling of rights in places like China, Egypt, Cuba or Saudi Arabia.
America “joined the Human Rights Council a year ago because we feel very firmly that 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,” Ms. Rice told reporters.
She acknowledged that the council “has not lived up to its potential, and remains flawed,” but also insisted that “it is preferable to work from within to shape and reform a body with the importance and potential of the Human Rights Council, rather than to stay on the sidelines and reject it.”
Rights organizations like U.N. Watch and Freedom House warn that the election of members like Libya dilutes the power of those who care about human rights. In today’s council, democracies hold only 40% of the seats — down from 49% last year.
So even as in New York Ms. Rice says that she’s making inroads in her struggle against Human Rights Council proposed resolutions like a ban on “defamation of religion,” there’s now a better chance that in Geneva such a resolution — which clearly violates America’s First Amendment — will sail through.