The recent brutalization of Buddhist monks in Burma, the collapse of a cease-fire in Sudan, and the lashing of a rape victim in Saudi Arabia have intensified global calls for human rights improvements. Echoing the “Mearsheimer realism” of the U of C’s political science department, however, many human rights activists have seemingly decided that the only actors capable of significantly addressing such problems are individual states, not international institutions like the U.N.
Many human rights groups and numerous student activists have already given up on the U.N.’s newest human rights body, the Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which replaced the nearly worthless U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in 2006. Such human rights promoters are bothered that a few slight reforms and a fresh acronym have not yet revolutionized the U.N.’s ability to promote human rights. These critics are only partially correct. While the fledgling Council is by no means perfect, it has made significant progress that, with proper recognition and support, will likely continue over time.
Take, for example, the recent elections of China, Cuba, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to the Council. While the power given to such habitual offenders is most frequently cited as evidence that the U.N. and human rights are antithetical concepts, such criticism overlooks which states failed to secure seats or did not bother applying at all. Iran ran for a seat during the Council’s first elections but lost. In the latest round, the U.S. employed diplomatic pressure to stymie repressive Belarus’s attempt to join the body. This cleared the way for the election of comparatively democratic Bosnia-Herzegovina. Libya, another well documented human rights violator—and the 2003 chair of the UNCHR—has not even attempted to seek membership. Arguably, because of the attention given to the new body by Kofi Annan and the media, Sudan, another former Commission member, is unwilling to risk more international scrutiny by running for the Council. When comparing the membership of the former UNCHR and the new UNHRC, the latter comes out smelling like a rose.
Besides merely attacking its members, critics of the Council have also dismissed its deliberations as too politicized or entirely misguided. This usually includes attacking the Council for its fetish-like focus on alleged Israeli human rights violations. Truth be told, Israel has been discussed at almost every meeting and has even been placed on the Council’s permanent agenda. Serious allegations have been raised regarding Israel’s illegal use of cluster bombs during its 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which Amnesty International even concluded constituted a war crime. However, the Council, unlike its predecessor, has proven its ability to consider other world issues. This includes its recent unanimous condemnation of Burma’s crackdown on dissidents and its vote to enact an unprecedented “universal human rights peer-review mechanism.” Now all U.N. member states—including Council members—will face U.N.–sanctioned annual human-rights reviews.
Regardless of this momentum, the Council is under siege. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL) has proposed that the U.S. withdraw its funding unless all Council members are able to meet U.S.–created human-rights benchmarks. First off, it is absurd to think current Council members would support change that would likely result in the loss of their seat later. Moreover, if only western states who met the benchmarks dominated the Council, it would once again be accused of bias.
A more pragmatic option is recognizing that time is needed to let the Council develop and mature. Children are not expected to walk, talk, and résumé-build after their first year of existence, and the Council should not be expected to instantly solve all global human rights issues. One new feature of the Council is term limits for states. No longer can human rights violators fester on the body for decades at a time.
Human-rights activists also need to look beyond the U.S. and the Security Council as the world’s first, last, and only lines of defense against human-rights violators and do more to raise awareness about the UNHRC. With the Israel card overplayed, the initiation of the universal human-rights review mechanism, and a ticking clock for human-rights violators, the UNHRC should not be discounted as a force for change.
Ryan Kaminski is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.