THE OBAMA administration, which has made the use of the United Nations Human Rights Council a signature piece of its diplomacy, has been celebrating the results of the council’s latest session in Geneva last week. In case you haven’t heard anything about those actions, we’ll forgive you; since its creation five years ago, the council has been mostly ignored outside the professional human rights community and with good reason. It has been dominated by abusers of human rights and has devoted most of its energies to demonizing Israel.
Yet just as the administration of President George W. Bush seemed to have a counterproductive compulsion to disregard potentially useful multinational forums, President Obama’s ideologues of multilateralism have been determined to rehabilitate the deeply flawed human rights council. The president and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at times have been far too reticent in their own comments about human rights violations around the world. But the administration has pushed hard for council resolutions on Libya, Iran and other pressing matters, based on the conviction that the United States is more effective when it is one among many partners.
Ms. Clinton issued two press statements hailing actions by the U.N. council. One praised the body for a resolution on religious tolerance that was notable mainly for avoiding illiberal language in previous resolutions that condemned critical speech against religion. The second celebrated the council’s decision to create a “special rapporteur” on the human rights situation in Iran, with a mandate to report on abuses in that country.
The U.S. ambassador to the council, Eileen Donahoe, told reporters it was near a turning point. “While the council remains an imperfect body, we have seen distinct progress in terms of its ability to respond to happenings in the world in real time,” she said, according to a Reuters dispatch. “There is more shared common ground here than people realize.”
That could be. But before the celebrations go any further, some context is worth adding. The new special rapporteur on Iran, for example, will be the council’s 25th; there are also nine “independent experts.” When was the last time the U.N. reps on human rights in Cambodia, North Korea, Haiti, Burundi, Somalia or Sudan got the world’s attention? We can’t recall an instance.
The Iran and religious tolerance resolutions, meanwhile, were not the only ones approved by the council. There were, in all, 14 resolutions on individual countries — and six of those were attacks on Israel. In all, 41 of the 65 resolutions dealing with individual countries since the council’s founding have singled out the Jewish state.
The council did speak out in defense of citizens of Syria, scores of whom have been slaughtered by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the past week or so. But it was talking not about the people of Daraa or Damascus, but the “Syrian citizens” of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Syria itself is a leading candidate to replace Libya as a member of the human rights council — where it will take its seat alongside Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, among numerous other undemocratic countries.
The Bush administration concluded that any human rights body to which such governments could gain membership was not worthy of U.S. participation. The Obama administration has spent the past two years trying mightily to prove otherwise. Thanks to its efforts, the council has gotten a little better. But is it really the best vehicle for advancing the cause of human rights? Our guess is that a few more speeches on Iran by the president and secretary of state, not to mention stronger backing for the Green Movement there, would do a lot more good than a U.N. special rapporteur.