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December 01, 2005

John Bolton and the UN Human Rights Council
Posted by Morton H. Halperin

What is John Bolton up to?  Is he conducting his own policy or is he taking orders from the State Department, as promised? 

With attention focused on Iraq, these questions have not gotten the attention they deserve.  Mr. Bolton has been off on his own suggesting that voluntary contributions should substitute for UN dues and that the US will soon start looking for other ways to work with friendly governments if the UN does not reform.

On one key issue -- the creation of a new Human Rights Council -- the evidence is mixed.  After jeopardizing success on this and other issues in his now famous rewrite of the consensus statement of world leaders,  Bolton has largely stayed out of the fight over the creation of the new Council, giving the lead to officials from the State Department.

As the negotiations come to a head over the next two weeks, one can only hope that he will remain on the sidelines and that the Administration will use its influence to secure a favorable outcome.

One urgent task is to persuade some of our closest allies that torpedoing this effort would have serious consequences for them.  Pakistan and Egypt have emerged, along with Venezuela and Cuba, as the key opponents of an effective Council.  The Administration needs to send a clear signal from Washington to Cairo and Islamabad that such obstruction is unacceptable.  Leading congressional supporters of aid to these nations should also weigh in.

Human rights advocacy groups from around the globe have reached agreement on what the key elements of an effective Council need to be.  This includes the election of states committed to human rights so that the likes of Lybia cannot serve (let alone chair the Council as Lybia did the current Human Rights Commission), having the Council be a standing body with the right to investigate specific human rights abuses and to meet more often than the current short spring session in Geneva.

One key to keeping human rights abusers off the Council is to require a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly to elect a state to the Council,  another is to require each regional bloc to nominate more states than it is allotted,  and a third is to use specific criteria, such as ratification of key UN human rights treaties.  The US government was originally a strong supporter of each of these but has now come to understand that their adoption could mean that the United States would not secure a seat on the Council.  This is the price we pay for the disgraceful American human rights record over the past four years.

Mr. Bolton is reported to be flirting with the idea of solving this problem by arguing that the perm five should be guaranteed seats on the Human Rights Council.  This would of course mean that China and Russia would also have permanent seats.  In any case, there is no way that the General Assembly would accept this idea.  It is another illustration of how out of touch Mr. Bolton is and how dangerous his appointment was.  Whether he is permitted to press this idea will tell us whether the State Department is in control, as promised, and will settle the future of the Council. 


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Steve Clemons has an extensive sneak peak of an article by Mark Leon Goldberg that will appear today in The American Prospect. Clemons adds his o... [Read More]

» Bolton's ba-a-a-ack! from chez Nadezhda
Steve Clemons has an extensive sneak peak of an article by Mark Leon Goldberg that will appear today in The American Prospect. Clemons adds his o... [Read More]

» Bolton's ba-a-a-ack! from chez Nadezhda
Steve Clemons has an extensive sneak peak of an article by Mark Leon Goldberg that will appear today in The American Prospect. Clemons adds his o... [Read More]


A thought: A lot of new progressive foreign policy proposals have as their centerpiece that we retake the mantle of global leader, shaping our foreign policy according to long-term principles, respecting multilateral fora and international law, and dropping the realpolitik in exchange for more consistent human rights advocacy. This is surely worthwhile even if it is only to make up lost ground, but what strikes me this morning is the following question: is our global leadership (in the sense of values and internationalist principles, rather than on security and economic grounds)--is it salvagable? Or can we never go back?

If the dominant lens by which others view the world is America's deceptively justififed invasion of Iraq, How long will we be paying that one off?

Given that in the final pre-summit negotiations in September John Bolton had merrily traded away all the language prescribing specifically how a new Human Rights Council would be constituted in order to remove any dastardly commitments to helping with poor countries' development, it's interesting to see him now threatening to shut down the U.N. if it doesn't approve his version of a Council now.

Moreover, the real test of the Administration's commitment to the Human Rights Council will be its willingness to do what Mort recommends here -- work bilaterally, capital to capital, to persuade the Egyptians and Pakistanis to join a majority for a strong Council. Is it important enough for Secretary of State Rice to call the foreign ministers in Cairo and Islamabad to persuade them?

Mort is right to note that the rules to promote election to the Council of states from each region that are more respectful of human rights would put the US candidacy at risk. With a choice between the United States and almost any other Western democracy, the membership at large may find the other Western democracy more respectful of human rights and less aggressive in political agenda than Bush's Washington. (That's what happened in 2001 when Sweden edged out the U.S. for a seat on the existing Human Rights Commission.) Willingness to compete and accept an electoral loss too is a test of commitment to democracy; assumptions of entitlement may seem a legacy of authoritarianism.

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