Prodding the U.N.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

THE BUSH administration's diplomacy toward the United Nations has often been abrasive and shortsighted. But yesterday's tough line on the U.N. Human Rights Council may turn out to be an exception. The administration refused to accept a proposed structure for this new body, reasonably fearing that it would protect human rights abusers rather than put pressure on them. The challenge now is to secure an agreement on a more robust structure.

The new Human Rights Council would replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights, whose rules have allowed serial rights violators to serve as panel members. The spectacle of countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, China and Cuba posing as arbiters of human rights has embarrassed the United Nations, leading Secretary General Kofi Annan to call for a replacement. But whereas Mr. Annan urged that countries should have to win the votes of two-thirds of U.N. member states to be allowed on the new council, the Swedish president of the U.N. General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, recommended that a simple majority of countries that cast a vote should be sufficient. This lower hurdle would make it harder to keep flagrant rights abusers off the new council. Hence the Bush administration's objection.

Mr. Eliasson's supporters say he came up with the best deal possible. Many member states were happy with a toothless human rights panel and resisted all suggestions for reform. Mr. Eliasson assuaged them with a lower voting hurdle, but he persuaded them to accept a human rights council that would meet three times a year rather than just once, as the existing commission does. He also secured a vague commitment to a peer-review system, which could deter thuggish regimes that fear scrutiny of their behavior from seeking seats on the commission. The Eliasson compromise is supported by most U.N. member states and many human rights groups, which fear that reopening the negotiations may allow the dictators' lobby to water down the proposals further.

By rejecting Mr. Eliasson's position, the Bush administration has thrust itself into the center of this argument and assumed responsibility for securing a better agreement. If it can restore the two-thirds voting requirement or build in other obstacles to the election of dictators, its intervention will prove welcome. Mr. Eliasson's supporters may be right that, at this late stage, it will be hard for the United States to steer the United Nations toward a better result. But if the Bush administration gets involved at a sufficiently high level, it may defeat the defeatists. The leading opponents of Mr. Annan's original reform included Egypt and Pakistan, two of the largest beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance. They and other countries should be told that relations with the United States will be affected if they resist a serious U.N. human rights body.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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