Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

UN adopts new Human Rights Council: Secretary Rice equivocates on crucial vote

Thursday, March 16, 2006

If speaking out of two sides of one's mouth at the same time, or being all things to all people, is a virtue, Secretary Rice's stance on the UN's new Human Rights Council was masterful. On March 15, 2006, the U.S. administration decided to vote in the UN General Assembly against the adoption of a new lead UN human rights body. The vote was 170 in favor, 4 against (U.S., Israel, Marshall Islands, Palau), and 3 abstentions (Belarus, Iran, Venezuela). The proposal had numerous serious flaws bound to have a detrimental effect on the United States, Israel, and the protection of human rights.

Rice could have made an important statement about the ravages of the current Human Rights Commission on the welfare of human rights victims and the inevitable detrimental consequences for human rights that would emerge from the new Council. Instead, Rice told Ambassador John Bolton to vote no and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns to tell the UN General Assembly President and the rest of the world that voting no didn't mean anything.

Said Mr. Burns in a telephone interview with the Washington Post at about the same time that Ambassador Bolton was voting the opposite way: "But we also want to see the U.N. succeed...So we'll look for ways to support with the aim of strengthening it." The Post's reporter was sufficiently taken aback as to write: "The move marked a dramatic shift in the U.S. attitude toward Eliasson's proposal to create a rights council to replace the Geneva-based U.N. Commission on Human Rights." Secretary Rice also instructed Ambassador Bolton not to vote against the financial implications (and the bill for American taxpayers) that resulted from the Council's creation. The vote on funding the Council took place just prior to the vote on the merits of the deal.

While the brinksmanship was real, it remains doubtful that key members of the European Union, like the United Kingdom and consequently, Sweden's President of the General Assembly Jan Eliasson would have insisted on a vote at this time if the United States had made it clear that a negative U.S. vote on the Council's creation would have serious consequences.

As it stands, the U.S. wasn't even able to say in advance whether its negative vote had any implications for its participation. This left Amnesty International (a key supporter of the Council whose latest annual report calls Guantanamo the "gulag of our time") to comment: "it is encouraging to hear that...the U.S. government will cooperate with the council and support it."

Some members of Congress fail to see the logic in voting against something on a matter of principle while assuring the U.N. there will be no price to pay for pursuing a flawed proposal and ignoring the U.S.'s concerns. One of these members is Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.), chairman of the Congressional human rights committee, who said, "To call what the UN did today 'reform' is Orwellian."

From a Secretary Rice/Nicholas Burns perspective, it may look like the best of both worlds. A no vote allows one to say "I told you so" if it goes badly. A refusal to vote against the budget, while letting it be known in advance that U.S. support will continue, avoids any criticism that the U.S. prevented its success.

But the message Secretary Rice sent is that the U.S. bark is worse than its bite. Vote against the U.S. in the UN General Assembly, and there will be no consequences to bear. Stand opposite the U.S. on matters of fundamental principle and U.S. taxpayers will continue to fund your cause.

When the election of the new Council takes place in May, and the likes of Cuba and China are back on - given that the new Council does not include a single criterion for membership other than geography - the next line of Rice/Burns is on the wall. We'll just have to cooperate better, work harder, pay more. Even if the U.S. is elected, the new Council requires any state serving two terms to rotate off (contrary to the U.S. role on the Commission for 58 of the past 59 years.) By then Rice may be long gone, but the consequences of her unwillingness to stand up to the bullies at the UN will have only just begun.

It remains to be seen whether losing a major vote on UN reform means anything more to Congress than it does to the Secretary of State.

A version of this editor's note appeared in the National Review Online.