By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 16, 2006
UNITED NATIONS -- The Bush administration is defending itself against criticism that it has not followed through on promises to lead a vigorous campaign at the United Nations to establish an effective new human rights council to condemn rights abusers.
For months, human rights advocates have accused the administration of leading a lackluster diplomatic effort, noting that it has assigned a mid-level representative to lead the talks in New York while other governments sent their top U.N. ambassadors.
They also expressed concern that John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been unduly fatalistic about the prospects for success, indicating he is prepared to abandon the effort if he cannot overcome opposition to a credible council.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "Frankly, my main critique of U.S. policy at this stage has been that the United States has been mainly AWOL, that its presence during the negotiations has been low level." Roth said he shares Bolton's assessment that the United States "shouldn't settle for window dressing." He expressed concern that Bolton's view reflects "defeatism" because "I don't accept that we can't emerge from these negotiations without a significantly improved council."
The Bush administration responded last week with a new high-level push in New York and foreign capitals to rally support for a strong council to replace the Human Rights Commission, whose credibility has suffered because of the membership of noted rights abusers, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. A six-month stretch of negotiations on the new council resumed Wednesday.
Senior administration officials have met with rights groups to assure them that it is a priority to create a new council before the commission holds its annual meeting in March in Geneva. They have assured the groups that Bolton and Deputy Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff will direct the U.S. diplomacy.
"The United States remains deeply committed to working cooperatively with other delegations to ensure a credible Human Rights Council is established, one true to its designated mandate," Bolton told foreign delegates early last week. "The changes cannot, however, be solely cosmetic, and the United States will not support artificial changes. Simply to replace the 'commission' with the word 'council' after 'human rights' would be a grave disservice to us all -- and it is not something the United States will support."
Until recently, Bolton's priority at the United Nations has been restructuring the organization's bureaucracy to upgrade its management and combat corruption.
Negotiations on the human rights council had been left to Mark P. Lagon, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. William E. Lucas, his deputy, managed the day-to-day talks through a critical stage of negotiations last month.
Some delegates said they interpreted Bolton's absence from the talks as a signal that the issue is low on Washington's priority list.
"I can't remember a meeting where Ambassador Bolton participated," said Ambassador Dumisani S. Kumalo, the South African co-chairman of the council negotiations. "Maybe if he did participate he didn't say anything, and you know I'd have remembered it."
Bolton and other senior administration officials insist that there has been high-level attention to the rights council. Kristen Silverberg, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international affairs, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top lieutenants have repeatedly underscored the U.S. commitment to a human rights council in meetings with foreign leaders.
She said that Bolton, who has been running an understaffed mission, focused in December on crafting critical deals on management changes and the U.N. budget that will ultimately increase pressure on other countries to conclude a deal on changes, including the creation of a rights council.
Bolton's reentry into the negotiations has rattled negotiators. He said the permanent five members, including the United States, China and Russia, should be granted automatic membership on the council.
Kumalo said Bolton's remarks have been "unhelpful" in the negotiations. "It sends an indirect message back to the people that these five will be set aside -- you know, they will be forgiven and the rest of all of you will be targets."
The State Department has since softened its position. Silverberg said that although the United States "needs to be a regular participant in council bodies, obviously we have to stand for election like every other member."
Still, the push to exclude countries from the council has faced intense resistance from developing nations, including governments that could be driven off the council.
Munir Akram, Pakistan's U.N. ambassador, said in an interview that his government is committed to a more effective council, but insisted that there is a "civilizational" difference between the way he and many Western delegates view the problem.
He said representatives of the new council should be selected on the basis of their neighbors' preferences, not strictly on their democratic credentials or their human rights records. "It's peer selection," Akram said. "If a majority of peers say 'okay' despite the fact that you think Country X is a violator of human rights, we think they are still justified to be on the council. I think it would be artificial to try to exclude them."
Bolton, meanwhile, told a gathering of relief experts and human rights advocates last month that he may be forced to concede defeat if such views prevail, said several participants at the meeting.
Bolton said that if opponents of a human rights council succeeded in weakening the new body, it would be better to preserve the Human Rights Commission with all its failings until a fresh opportunity arises to restructure it, U.S. officials and rights advocates said. "We want a butterfly," Bolton said. "We're not going to put lipstick on a caterpillar and declare it a success."