By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 2, 2006
UNITED NATIONS -- John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he will start the new year by reinvigorating stalled efforts to restructure management of the world body, beginning with a controversial push to seek assurances that the Security Council's five major powers will be guaranteed posts on a new Human Rights Council.
Bolton said in an interview that the Bush administration wants to ensure that the United States is never again denied membership in the United Nations' principal human rights body, as it was in 2001, when Austria, France and Sweden defeated a U.S. bid for membership in the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission. But his initiative would also boost efforts by China and Russia, two permanent council members with troubled rights records, to gain membership in the new body.
The proposal is part of a broader drive by Bolton to place the five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- at the center of U.N. decision making. But an official involved in the negotiations warned that creating fresh privileges for the council's most powerful states "would turn off a large chunk of the membership."
Bolton said one of his main priorities for 2006 will be rallying council support for new initiatives to combat terrorism and the spread of the world's deadliest weapons. Last month, he helped secure permanent posts for the "P-5" countries on a new U.N. peace-building commission that was established to oversee post-conflict reconstruction efforts worldwide.
"It's called the perm 5 convention. It's not written down anywhere -- it's not a treaty or anything like that," Bolton said. "It has been a convention operating also from the beginning of the United Nations that the perm 5 serve on all standing bodies of the U.N. that they want to serve on, in exchange for the perm 5 almost never seeking chairmanships of any bodies."
Bolton said that convention should apply to membership in the new Human Rights Council, which he hopes will block the worst human rights violators from using posts on the council to deflect or prevent criticism of their rights records.
The new council would replace the existing 53-member Human Rights Commission, which drafted the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Eleanor Roosevelt's leadership but which now routinely grants membership to governments with abysmal human rights records, including Cuba, Libya, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
The Bush administration favors a requirement that most members of the new council be selected by a two-thirds vote from the 191-member U.N. General Assembly, diminishing the prospects for rights violators. Candidates for the Human Rights Commission are now selected by a system of regional rotation that makes no distinction between rights advocates and abusers.
Bolton said the new rights body would not necessarily need to enshrine the membership privileges of the United States and other major council powers in its charter. But he indicated he would seek some informal "understanding" that they be granted automatic membership if they chose to serve. "Any U.N. body without the perm 5 is just not going to be as effective as a U.N. body with the perm 5, and that is reality," he said.
Bolton's initiative was criticized by some U.N. diplomats, human rights advocates and others who said it would reward China and Russia, which are often criticized for rights abuses.
If that is the only way to ensure the United States can be on the human rights council, "is that the kind of organization we want to be committed to?" said Joseph Loconte, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "I'm dubious."
Others worried Bolton's comments would roil sensitive diplomatic talks scheduled to resume next week on how to create a new rights council.
"My biggest concern is it would be a divisive factor in the negotiations," said Peggy Hicks, the global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
Hicks said that despite the Bush administration's public support for the new council, it has recently played a lackluster role in pressing for its creation. She said the United States has failed to send high-level representatives to the closed-door U.N. negotiations or to forcefully promote proposals to strengthen the council's effectiveness, including a plan to authorize the council to meet anytime throughout the year.
Bolton challenged his critics, saying, "A lot of people mistakenly think that what we're after as part of our reform priority is just management reform. But in fact that is a piece, an important piece, but only a piece of the larger picture, which also encompasses governance reform. . . . The Human Rights Commission is the aspect of governance reform that obviously is ripest and that we have been pressing hardest on and it reflects the almost universal belief that the Human Rights Commission's intergovernmental decision making machinery is broken beyond repair.
"We'd like to see if we can get the commission abolished and the new council put in place before the existing commission meets again in Geneva in a few months," he said.
He said the United States is also sharpening its strategy for upcoming negotiations on U.N. management changes.
Bolton welcomed a recent U.N. decision to strengthen its policy protecting whistle-blowers as "20 years overdue" but said that another U.N. initiative to reinforce its auditing capacity to prevent corruption did not go far enough.
He said that to guide his own negotiations, he has assembled a "matrix" of recommendations for revisions proposed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, who led an 18-month investigation of U.N. corruption and mismanagement in Iraq.
"We're going to continue to pursue those, number one, because we think the Volcker Commission made a lot of recommendations that have not yet been addressed and that should be," he said. "And number two, Congress is not going to leave this alone."