The U.N. Human Rights Council needs reform (again)

Again, the idea of a U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council is under consideration. Americans, especially American conservatives, tend to fixate on the Council’s fixation with Israel. For reasons I’ll make clear enough below, that fixation is not just silly, it’s cynical. Still, I think leaving the HRC just yet would be a big mistake. I might have answered that question differently ten years ago, before the U.N. Commission of Inquiry proved that the HRC is capable of doing good and altering the global consensus in ways that not only have the potential to help the people of North Korea, but to do so in ways that also align with our own interests (a point I’ll return to below). Before that, I couldn’t have argued that the HRC’s influence was, on the whole, positive, or even potentially positive. Institutions like the HRC require careful tending. Without it, they become worse than useless. If you wonder what I mean, read this resolution. Once I’d read about it, I was glad we had at least threatened to leave:

In a resolution (A/HRC/34/L.14) on human rights and unilateral coercive measures, adopted by a vote of 32 in favour, 14 against and zero abstentions, the Council calls upon all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures not in accordance with international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States; and rejects all attempts to introduce unilateral coercive measures, as well as the increasing trend in this direction, including through the enactment of laws with extraterritorial application. The Council requests the High Commissioner, in discharging his functions in relation to the promotion and protection of human rights, to pay due attention and to give urgent consideration to the present resolution; and also requests the High Commissioner to organize for the thirty-sixth session of the Council the biennial panel discussion on the issue of unilateral coercive measures and human rights, and prepare a report on the panel discussion for submission and presentation to the Council at its thirty-seventh session.

In English, that means that governments should not sanction other governments for human rights abuses unless all members of the Security Council (including China and Russia) agree. The votes:

In favour (32): Bangladesh, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, China, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

Against (14): Albania, Belgium, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and United States of America.

The HRC’s fixation with Israel is only a symptom of the deeper problem. This vote is much more probative of what the deeper problem is — the Council’s (lack of) membership standards, and the hostility of many of its members to the very idea of holding abusers accountable. In many cases, sanctions are the only way despots can be held accountable in the short term. That hostility isn’t hard to explain when you realize that the HRC’s current members include Bolivia, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and numerous other states that should never pass a Universal Periodic Review. As they taught us to say in lawyer school at such moments, res ipsa loquitur.

Liberals who value the U.N. as an institution must acknowledge this for what it is: a cynical takeover of a human rights institution by some of the world’s most despotic states, which seek to sit in judgment over their betters. The issue that underlies all of the HRC’s troubling votes is who is allowed to sit on the HRC at all. Beneath that issue, in turn, must be the establishment of basic standards for membership. After all, the despot’s favorite strategy against his critics is moral equivalence — to obliterate the meaning of human rights standards by equating every sin with every other sin. If all sins are equal, and if all states commit sins, then China and Saudi Arabia are qualified to fill the HRC’s agenda with resolutions condemning Switzerland for conditions in its immigration detention centers, or Israel for walling out bus bombers. Then, the HRC becomes a parody of itself. Such an institution is not only not worth having, it’s worse than nothing. When we reach that point, it’s time for some careful tending and hard bargaining, including threats to withdraw.

In America, there is a long-standing argument between so-called “realists” and Wilsonians over the proper role of human rights in our foreign policy. So-called “realists” tend to advocate for the U.S. doing whatever supports its immediate, short-term interest, but when that involves supporting despotic regimes, “realism” comes with long-term costs. Anyone who has lived in South Korea knows how anti-Americans have fetishized every difficult or flat-out wrong choice the U.S. has made during its long (and overwhelmingly beneficent) involvement there. But the opposite can also be true.

I believe that it is usually in our long-term interest to take the side of persecuted peoples, because people tend to have long memories about who supported them in their darkest days. A case in point here is one of the states that voted against the cynical resolution I cited above, and one we seldom hear about: Albania. (Our successes are seldom as well-publicized as our failures.) Once one of the world’s most despotic states, Albania now enjoys friendly relations with the United States. Pro-American sentiment is strong, largely because its people remember the U.S. role in ending the slaughter in Kosovo. It can’t hurt, either, that former dictator Enver Hoxha often demonized the United States. As a partial consequence of this favorable publicity, Albania has become a valuable ally. While not a perfect democracy, it has evolved rapidly into a representative government with regular free elections. Its human development index has risen steadily in recent years, to the point where it is now considered a middle-income country. Albania is an example of a nation whose favorable memories of U.S. intervention paid long-term dividends by creating a friendly government that pursues friendly policies, and whose people are far better off than they were under a previous hostile and oppressive regime.

How we use our influence at institutions like the HRC and the Security Council can be an important instrument of our national power to advance those interests. Time has convinced me that there is no universally correct answer to the argument between self-described realists and Wilsonians. Not every society (case in point, Egypt) is presently capable of self-government. In such places, forcing an immediate transition to Jeffersonian democracy can only end in one form of despotism or another. Yet even in those places, our objective should be to use whatever influence we have to catalyze the evolution of a society, to prepare it for self-government as quickly as its economic, educational, and cultural conditions allow.

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