TOPICS : Obama’s eagerness on human rights

After eight years of neglect, President-elect Barack Obama is eager to have the United States re-engage with the United Nations. A good way to begin would be to join the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. President Bush snubbed the pre-eminent international human rights policymaking body when it was established in 2006, with disastrous results. A speedy reversal by Obama would give hope to moderate governments that yearn for a stronger UN human rights program. It would also invigorate the entire UN system, generate goodwill, and encourage others to help with tough policy challenges like Guantanamo Bay.

The UN’s human rights program has been badly weakened by an ill-advised reform and by America’s absence from the Human Rights Council. Until 2006, UN human rights policy was made by the Human Rights Commission, a body of 53 governments that included Sudan and Zimbabwe. Sudan’s membership, at the peak of the genocide in Darfur, caused outrage in Washington and prompted calls for reform. The commission was voted out of existence in 2005 and replaced by the council. The problem is that no governments have clean hands when it comes to human rights, so basing election to the council on good behaviour would have excluded most of the world’s powerful governments. That would not have been credible.

As a result, the new council was organised along the lines of the much-maligned commission, into five regions. The big difference was that Africa and Asia each received almost twice as many seats as the West in the horse-trading. This was a recipe for mischief, and the Bush administration made it worse by declining even to apply for membership. In the three years since, hapless Western governments have been consistently out-manoeuvred and outvoted on the council. Can the trend be reversed? Yes, but it will require vision. All governments understand that global challenges such as climate change and recession will put immense pressure on the weak and require a strong human rights response from the UN.

Such a vision will need a strategy. The US should start by courting moderate governments that feel obliged to vote with their regions but could probably be persuaded to support a less politicised approach. Many have greeted Obama’s election with relief, but to take advantage of their goodwill, his team must propose a practical agenda instead of lamenting the council’s shortcomings. This should start with a commitment to abide by international standards of behaviour. There can be no more preaching human rights and practicing torture. Second, the US should call for an overhaul of the Universal Periodic Review. It needs independent oversight. Finally, Obama and his nominee for UN Ambassador, Susan Rice, should appoint a delegate with a proven commitment to human rights. Such an agenda would require an investment in diplomatic capital. But it would also produce a huge return — for the US and for human rights. — The Christian Science Monitor