Commentary

Opinion: US must lead by example in human rights

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WASHINGTON — Today, the United Nations General Assembly will elect 14 new members to its Human Rights Council.

The good news is that Iran, despite waging an animated campaign, has withdrawn its bid for a seat and will therefore not be elected to the council.

The bad news is that, for the first time since the council was created in 2006, there will be no competition for seats, giving states like Libya a pass. The naysayers are already at work saying this is yet another reason to walk away from the council, but that easy approach misses the bigger story unfolding in U.N. corridors and in capitals around the world.

Some basic facts are worth highlighting: The U.N. Human Rights Council is a body composed of imperfect governments, none of which can claim purity on human rights. Some, however, are more imperfect than others, and that is why the U.N.’s members have created criteria for election to its top human rights body.

According to this criteria, a state should uphold “the highest standards” of human rights and “fully cooperate” with the council. It should present pledges outlining its qualifications and goals and may not run for more than two consecutive terms. It can even be removed from the council for gross and systematic violations of human rights.

In practice, when given a choice for the seats allotted to each region, states have managed to defeat the candidate with the worse human rights record. In 2007, it was Belarus, which the General Assembly condemned only a few months earlier for its poor human rights record. In 2008, Sri Lanka was defeated in the midst of intense warfare against its civilian Tamil population. In 2009, Azerbaijan, another poor performer on human rights, lost.

This year, thanks to the possibility of competitive slates, Iran withdrew from the race because it figured out it would lose; it failed even to garner enough support from its Asian neighbors. Given the General Assembly’s strong condemnation of Iran’s human rights abuses last December and the continued repression since then, it is a rare but welcomed example of the truth trumping propaganda.

What explains these results?

For one thing, human rights defenders from around the world are focused, organized and engaged in cross-border advocacy to shine a spotlight on the worst abusers and to urge governments to defeat them. Their message gets results because the instrument of competitive elections gives governments a viable choice in the voting booth. It is therefore critical that competition continues if, over time, we are to see an improved cast of characters in Geneva, where the council is based. In this regard, the United States must set the right example by insisting on competitive slates for its regional group, unlike last year when it pushed New Zealand aside to run unopposed.

Now that the U.S. is on the council, it seems to be making a positive difference. It campaigned quietly but determinedly to block Iran’s candidacy. It is building cross-regional coalitions to address contentious issues like freedom of expression and hate crimes and terrible violence in countries like Guinea and Sudan. And it appears to be taking seriously its first-ever submission later this year to the Universal Period Review process, a new mechanism that now requires every state’s human rights record to be evaluated in proceedings web simultaneously broadcast throughout the world.

The Obama administration is off to a good start, then, in its re-engagement policy at the U.N. Human Rights Council, but it must do much more, starting with our own actions at home. Seen from the eyes of human rights defenders on the ground, the most important thing Washington can do is to lead by example.

This is particularly true in the area of counter-terrorism. Harsh U.S. tactics against terror suspects hand repressive governments an easy pretext to defend their own actions to muzzle opposition and jail dissidents on trumped-up charges that they are threats to national security. U.S. influence to create a safer world is greatest, they argue, when it upholds its own cherished principles of freedom and justice for all.

By the time the U.S. presents its report in Geneva in November, we will know how it intends to manage the fight against terrorism in accordance with the rule of international law. It will be a pivotal moment in President Obama’s wish that this country be an inspiration to others. The U.S. will succeed if it honestly holds itself accountable to the same universal standards — standards based on our own founding documents — that we demand others to uphold.

Congress should also do its part by supporting human rights defenders on the frontlines, ratifying human rights treaties and providing ample resources to support a robust U.N. human rights system. With these steps, the U.S. will be in a more powerful position to seek the reforms that are needed to make the Human Rights Council stronger. And human rights defenders may have found an ally they can count on.

Ted Piccone is a Senior Fellow and the Deputy Director for Foreign Policy at The Brookings Institution in Washington.