The task of reforming the United Nations Human Rights Council is a daunting one. Since the council was set up in 2006 to replace the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, it has achieved little to cheer about. Human rights pariahs such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have been easily elected to the council and have so far achieved great success in making sure it doesn't do its real job. Israel gets pummeled time and again, while countries like Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Uzbekistan escape serious attention. Even the situation in Sudan has received only a weak and mostly ineffective response. A newly released Freedom House "Report Card on the Human Rights Council" gives the council a passing grade in only one of 11 criteria.
With this litany of failures, it is understandable when critics claim that the council is unsalvageable and that no amount of resources can fix its inherent problems. But these critics overlook the fundamental reason why it has failed to date. The council's primary weakness is not that the world's most repressive societies manage to get themselves elected and then run roughshod over the council's other members, but rather that the majority of the world's democracies let them do it. There are more democracies than dictatorships in the world today; yet curiously, it is the despots who focus their diplomatic energies on the council.
The United States is perhaps the only democracy with the clout needed to move the council in the right direction. At a time when Freedom House has tracked three straight years of global backsliding in fundamental political rights and civil liberties, it is all the more urgent to try to shore up the world's only global body dedicated to protecting and advancing human rights.
The decision by the Barack Obama administration to seek a seat on the council, and the United States' successful election in May, was a welcome first step. The George W. Bush-era policy of non-engagement with the council was an ineffective, if not counterproductive, way of addressing the council's flaws. The global human rights community issued an audible sigh of relief in March when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would run for a seat on the premise that "working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights."
But it is far too soon to assume that the United States will be able to play the role of a white knight. Getting elected to the council was merely a start. The presence of the United States on the council is far less important for its vote on key resolutions than for the significant political resources it can bring to bear by sponsoring important resolutions and by securing other members' support. Despite the fact that democracies outnumber nondemocracies on the council by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1, only a handful of the council's 47 members can be counted upon to vote consistently in accordance with human rights priorities. It will take enormous diplomatic effort to turn this around.