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.
The Human 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 others.
Bush administration U.N. envoy John Bolton said it "legitimizes something that doesn't deserve legitimacy."
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 States.
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 bias.
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.