The Obama administration on Wednesday defended its
decision to reverse the policy of its predecessor and seek a seat on the United
Nations' Human Rights Council. Critics of the move contend that the U.N. agency
is beyond reform.
The decision is being
criticized by U.S. conservatives who say it only legitimizes a fatally-flawed
organization. But Obama administration officials say they believe engagement can
reform the U.N. body, even though they say they have no illusions about the
difficulty of the process.
Rights Council was formed in 2006 to replace the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee,
which was widely discredited for accepting countries with poor human rights
records as members.
Critics say the successor
organization has been no improvement, with the council disregarding rights
abuses in places like Zimbabwe and Sudan's Darfur region, while being a sounding
board for criticism of Israel.
The Bush administration
initially agreed to fund the council and participate as an observer but later
withdrew, citing its undue focus on Israel.
In an announcement late Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the United
States will seek a seat on the panel in elections in mid-May, in keeping with
the Obama administration's focus on engagement and with a belief that the agency
can be reformed by working from within.
The move was welcomed by advocacy groups, including Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch. But it was condemned by
Bush administration U.N.
envoy John Bolton said it "legitimizes something that doesn't deserve
The ranking Republican on the House Foreign
Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said the move surrenders the best
leverage the United States had to reform the agency.
But at a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman
Gordon Duguid said engagement is the way to bring positive change.
"We are going into the Human Rights Council or we are standing,
I should say, for election to Human Rights Council with no illusions about its
past practice, with no illusions about some of the flaws that were there. But
our intent is to work to improve the council and to work to help that council
improve the status of human rights around the world," he said.
The United States is considered virtually certain to gain one
of three council seats reserved for western countries when the U.N. General
Assembly elects 18 new members of the 47-nation council on May 15.
Norway and Belgium are the only other countries in the
so-called "Western Group" seeking election after New Zealand announced on
Wednesday that it was dropping out of contention in deference to the United
New Zealand Foreign Minister
Murray McCully said U.S. membership on the council is more likely to produce
positive changes quickly.
Among those expressing
concern about the Obama administration decision to seek membership was Abraham
Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League - a major U.S. Jewish group - who
said the panel has deep, systematic flaws and an entrenched anti-Israel
State Department spokesman
Duguid said the administration's intent is to try to "de-politicize" the
council's discussions and focus its attention on human rights abuses that all of
its members can help resolve.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon says U.S. membership would help blunt the influence of the council's
most repressive members.