Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

A Sham Engagement: The U.S. participates in a human-rights travesty

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Engagement - the centerpiece of the Obama administration's foreign policy - is currently making its debut in the heart of the U.N. human-rights world in Geneva. And U.S. diplomats have become sitting ducks on a firing range.

U.S. representatives are participating, for the first time, in a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. This is the second half of a policy decision that the administration unveiled a week ago: The U.S. would attend the Council, but remain on the sidelines in the U.N.'s Durban II "anti-racism" conference.

Obama's real agenda is to join the Council as a full member. Elections take place in May, and the campaign to get the U.S. to run has now reached fever pitch. Rooting for this is a motley crew of current Council members and human-rights lowlifes pining for good-guy credentials, together with U.N. personnel, State Department officials, U.S.-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, and NGO representatives.

The Council is the U.N.'s lead human-rights body. It was created back in 2006 out of the ruins of the U.N. Human Rights Commission (once chaired by Libya). At the time, the U.S. proposed making the actual protection of human rights a criterion for membership in the "reformed" agency. When the idea was rejected as a gross interference with the entitlements of human-rights abusers, the U.S. refused to participate in or to pay for the Council - until, that is, the arrival of President Obama.

Understanding the Council is a no-brainer. It is divided into five regional groups, with the African and Asian regional groups together forming the majority. The Islamic bloc holds the balance of power because it has successfully elected a majority to each of the African and Asian regional groups. The Western bloc controls a mere 7 of 47 seats. Current membership boasts such human-rights stalwarts as Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba.

Electioneering is in the air, and U.S. officials apparently have instructions to grin and bear it. The State Department announcement justifying the U.S. participation claimed: "We . . . will do more to . . . advance human rights if we are part of the conversation." That would assume that the conversation was about advancing human rights, not setting them back. Under the newly minted U.S. engagement strategy, here is some of what has passed for human-rights conversation at the Council over the past week:

  • Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki called for the elimination of "the illegitimate Zionist regime" and support for "the legitimate resistance . . . of Hamas." He also declared that "in accordance with its Constitution . . . Iran makes every effort to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms." That would be the same constitution that allows stoning, amputation, and the murder of homosexuals for the crime of existing.

  • Saudi Arabia's Human Rights Commission chairman, Bandar bin Mohammed al-Aban, told those assembled at the Council that "the kingdom continues a consistent policy of promoting and consolidating principles of justice and equality among all members of society." He didn't mention that last week another Saudi woman was arrested for being behind the wheel of a car.

  • The Egyptian minister for legal and parliamentary councils, Mufid Shehab, said it was paramount that "freedom of expression should not lead to abuse of religions and religious standpoints. . . . Societies should be obliged to punish acts of free expression when they damage the rights of others. . . . Opinions cannot be expressed freely if this affects . . . religious sensibilities.

  • Cuba's justice minister, Maria Esther Reus González, ranted about U.S. "plans for global domination," "wars of pillage and conquest," and "twenty long years . . . of blockade and aggression." (A Council decision of 2006 takes Cuba's human-rights record permanently off the table.)

  • Sudan's justice minister, Abdel Daiem Zumrawi, gave an account of his country's positive "endeavors in Darfur" - also known as genocide. He told the U.S. "to increase [its] contribution to a peaceful solution by exercising pressure on all of the armed groups" - excluding the government of Sudan.

  • The "Palestine Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs," Ahmad Soboh, spoke warmly of "the outstanding progress" of the Human Rights Council as compared with the Commission. Over 40 years, 30 percent of all the country condemnations made by the Commission were directed at Israel. The Council has already directed over 50 percent of all condemnations at Israel.

  • China's representative, Li Saodong, made a nice speech about China's "democracy" and "democratic institutions" and its "continued policy of ethnic equality . . . to protect religious [and] cultural identities, and heritage" - which of course would be news to the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans. He then called for states to "engage in dialogue and cooperation." Sound familiar?

  • In the context of all of this human-rights shop-talk, U.S. representative Mark Storella was excited to be a part of it all. On behalf of the United States, he declared: "It is my great pleasure to be here today, and to address this body, on behalf of the United States. My government has made the affirmative decision to actively reengage as an observer in the Human Rights Council. We look forward to participating in the Council's deliberations and working closely with you in the coming weeks and throughout the year. . . . As President Obama said in his recent address to a joint session of the United States Congress, 'In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun.'"

    This kind of ingratiating language is not harmless. It has the tangible effect of leading other countries to believe there is no downside to using the Council to criticize the U.S., rather than to work with it. By Friday, the Cuban and Venezuelan delegations had mounted verbal attacks on various alleged U.S. violations of international law and human rights. In response, no right of reply was exercised by U.S. diplomats. Engagement is apparently a one-way street.

    At Friday's session, one NGO had the audacity to mention Muslim incitement to religious hatred of Jews. It was contained in books produced by a prominent Muslim organization that were flogged in the halls of the U.N. itself. The speaker was interrupted by the Council chair and ruled out of order. No comment from U.S. diplomats.

    The Obama administration is not sitting in Geneva just to present itself as ignorant, naďve, incompetent, and weak. It wants a permanent seat at this anti-human-rights travesty.

    The U.N. has promised a five-year review of Council operations in 2011. If "engagement" stands for anything other than drivel, the administration should stay out and leverage future participation against demands for changes during the review. The membership of the world's greatest democracy ought not to be taken for granted by the U.N. - it should be earned. If the current form of "engagement" sloganeering takes precedence, however, all genuine human-rights victims will lose.

    This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared in National Review Online.