Obama Administration Pledges to Keep Abusers Off U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | January 23, 2012 | 4:43am EST

Joseph Torsella, deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform, speaks at U.N. headquarters in New York City on May 11, 2011. (Photo: U.S. Mission to the U.N.)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration will step up efforts to prevent the election of human rights-abusing nations onto the United Nations’ top human rights agency, a senior U.S. diplomat has pledged.

The U.S. will work harder to confront the practices and customs that have enabled repressive regimes inappropriately to take up positions of responsibility in U.N. bodies, Joseph Torsella, deputy ambassador for U.N. management and reform, said in a speech Friday.

Addressing a Council on Foreign Relations audience, Torsella said poor choices in U.N. elections and appointments – or what he described as “misguided efforts by member-states” and “self-inflicted wounds” – harm public support for the U.N.

Many Republican lawmakers oppose the administration’s policy of deepening engagement with the U.N. even as the world body continues to elevate controversial member states to leadership positions and to focus disproportionately and critically on Israel.

The U.S. is the U.N.’s biggest funder by far. American taxpayers account for 22 percent of the regular budget, in addition to billions of dollars in voluntary contributions for various U.N. agencies. The total U.S. contribution in fiscal year 2010 was $7.69 billion.

Republican-drafted legislation seeks to change the way the U.N. is funded, allowing the U.S. and other member states to pay for only those activities and agencies they view as efficient and in the national interest.

Torsella reiterated the administration’s stance on “paying our U.N. bills on time and in full.”

In a portion of the speech dealing with reforming the U.N.’s “reputation and integrity,” he defended its record to date.

“For three years now, the Obama administration has been working overtime to keep the worst offenders off U.N. bodies,” he said, citing as examples the 2010 effort to deny Iran a place on the executive board of the new agency promoting the equality of women, U.N. Women; and to deny Syria a seat on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council last May. (withdrew its controversial candidacy shortly before the election.)

“We’ll continue these efforts,” Torsella said. “But the time has come to go further and to chip away at the outmoded idea that uncontested slates and strict regional rotations are more important than the U.N.’s credibility and effectiveness.”

He was referring to two entrenched practices at the United Nations:

--Leadership positions are invariably rotated among the five regional groups – irrespective of whether the group deemed to be next in line for a particular post has the most suitable candidate or not.

--Regional groups frequently agree on “closed slates” of candidates, submitting the same number of countries as there are seats available for that group. Critics say the absence of competition makes a mockery of the “election” process and is the main reason why poor candidates have won seats.

Western democracies have been little better than developing world autocracies in following the practice. In last year’s Human Rights Council (HRC) election, for instance, all five geographic groups submitted closed slates. With the exception of the inaugural HRC election in 2006, regional groups have offered closed slates more often than not.

The U.S. itself benefited from the practice in 2009 when the Obama administration, reversing its predecessor’s policy of shunning the HRC, ran for a seat.  When it first announced the decision, the Western group already had three candidates nominated for three available seats – Belgium, Norway and New Zealand – setting the stage for a four-way contest for the three seats. But following unconfirmed reports that the U.S. was nudging Belgium to exit, New Zealand withdrew.

Torsella acknowledged that “the U.S. hasn’t always practiced what we’re preaching.”

“But our reform leadership at the U.N., like our international leadership throughout our history, is stronger when we hold ourselves to the same standards we urge on others.”

‘Credibility caucus’

Although Torsella did not mention it in his speech, the U.S. has also gone along with trade-offs and compromises, even in the efforts he portrayed as Obama’s administration successes.

Although Iran was prevented from getting a seat on the U.N. Women board in 2010, for example, several other countries with poor records on women’s rights and equality did get one, including Saudi Arabia, Libya, Ethiopia and Pakistan.

The Obama adminstration has made deeper engagement with the United Nations a high priority. Here Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confers with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice as President Obama and U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon meet at the White House on Mar 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Also, while the U.S. helped to keep Tehran off the U.N. Women board, it did nothing to prevent Iran from securing a seat earlier the same year on another U.N. entity dealing with women’s issues, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

On that occasion, despite concerns raised by more than 200 Iranian women’s rights activists that Tehran would use its CSW position “to curtail progress and the advancement of women,” neither the U.S. nor any other democracy raised an objection, thus allowing Iran to be elected “by acclamation.”

In his speech, Torsella said the U.S. aimed to build a new coalition at the U.N. – “a kind of ‘credibility caucus’ to promote truly competitive elections, rigorous application of membership criteria, and other reforms aimed at keeping the worst offenders on the sidelines.”

It was time for all member states committed to human rights to “hold Human Rights Council members to the same standard of truly ‘free and fair’ elections that the U.N. promotes around the world, and insist on the highest standards of integrity for the council and all its members.”

Beyond the HRC, Torsella said the U.S. would promote across the U.N. the principle that any member state under Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses or proliferation “should be barred, plain and simple, from leadership roles like chairmanships in U.N. bodies.”

“Abusers of international law or norms should not be the public face of the U.N.”

Controversial U.N. leadership decisions in recent years include:

2006-2011: China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Cameroon, Gabon and Kyrgyzstan – all countries frequently criticized for their human rights records at home – elected onto the HRC.

Aug. 2011:  North Korea appointed to the rotating presidency of the U.N.-linked Conference on Disarmament.

Sept. 2010:  Pakistan appointed to chair the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

2009-2010:  Iran appointed vice-chair of the U.N. General Assembly’s Committee on Information, whose mission encompasses “strengthen[ing] peace and international understanding” by promoting “the free circulation and wider and better-balanced dissemination of information.”

2007-2008: Iran elected vice-chair of the U.N. Disarmament Commission, a body dealing with nuclear and conventional arms reduction, and non-proliferation.

2007:  Libya elected to chair committee preparing for the HRC’s controversial “Durban II” racism conference, held in 2009.

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