[human rights, human wrongs]

Topic: United Nations

The talk at the UN these days is focused on the proposed Human Rights Council, which would replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights.

After months of negotiation, the president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, produced a draft proposal on February 23th. Except it wasn’t actually the product of a negotiation, where representatives of each country sit together and hash out a text. Rather, Eliasson and his team worked with representatives from thirty countries, taking their ideas and putting together his proposal.

The result is seen by almost everyone as flawed but good enough. The old Commission lost credibility by allowing countries like Libya and Zimbabwe to join. Under the Eliasson proposal, the new Council would have 47 members who would be elected by a simple majority of all UN Member States, greatly reducing the chances that a pariah state could join. (A detailed comparison grid is available from The Washington Note.)

Nevertheless, this is a substantial climbdown from the earlier position supported by the US and many other developed countries, which would have limited the Council to about 30 members and required that they be elected by two-thirds majority.

The New York Times reported recently on the state of play, in which the US stands against nearly everybody in opposing the Eliasson plan because it sacrificed the two-thirds majority rule. Of course, the General Assembly can go ahead and create the new Human Rights Council without American support, but there seems to be broad agreement that doing so would undermine the Council from the start.

TPM Cafe’s Bolton Watch has covered the issue closely, pointing out that neither Ambassador Bolton nor anyone else from the United States bothered to tell Eliasson and his team that the two-third issue was a make-or-break matter for the United States. Indeed, America stayed aloof during the negotiation process, which has suggested to some observers that Bolton’s intention throughout was to sabotage the process, undermining the UN.

If that’s the strategy, it may well be working. Bolton has positioned himself as the lonely defender of real reform, and Congress will eat this stuff up. Knowing how seriously the Bush administration takes human rights, and how dedicated it is to supporting the UN and multilateralism in general, it’s hard to take Bolton’s righteous posturing seriously. But it is Congress that controls America’s purse strings, and our government provides the UN with close to a quarter of its regular budget and a similar chunk of its peacekeeping money. It wouldn’t take much to convince this Congress to cut off the UN, at least for a while, thereby undermining the entire reform process that we purport to favor.

I don’t personally think that Bolton or the US Congress can destroy the UN, as some panicky critics seem to be suggesting. The UN, though potentially seriously weakened, will go on whether America is happy with it or not. Eventually there will be a different administration in Washington. Perhaps, too, if we do decide to cut off the UN, it will become clear how much we need it, just as the Bush administration’s policies have revealed the importance of allies, contingency plans and investment in domestic infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today presented his plan for Secretariat and management reform. More on that soon.

And on a personal note, I happened to see John Bolton giving a press conference in front of the Security Council chamber the other day, and I feel obligated to say that he looks much less walruslike in person.