Putting the Human Rights Back in Human Rights Council

The United States can help save a dysfunctional U.N. body from itself.

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.

The jury is out on whether the United States will be able to perform a highly delicate balancing act between maintaining steadfast support for core civil and political rights, and demonstrating to allies and foes alike that America values a multilateral approach.

The Obama administration has already achieved one laudable success in helping to secure, in June at the last council session, passage of a resolution to continue examination of Sudan. The resolution passed, albeit just barely, because of significant behind-the-scenes U.S. lobbying that helped break down the council's debilitating tradition of bloc voting by securing the yes votes (or in some cases the abstentions) of important African and Latin American democracies. Efforts like these require U.S. diplomats to travel to key capital cities and engage in genuine discussions with their counterparts, listening to concerns and making acceptable compromises or trade-offs.

Although the Sudan resolution marked a rare and unexpected success, it will require even greater effort to bring other council members around on fundamental human rights issues, such as protecting freedom of expression or censuring the world's most egregious rights abusers, issues on which the council has so far failed miserably. In the coming year, the United States will have its work cut out for it in ensuring the continued mandates of special rapporteurs for countries like Somalia and Burma and in defeating the annual resolutions that attempt to criminalize speech critical of religions or religious practices.

In doing so, Obama will need a strong ambassador who possesses a rare combination of diplomatic experience, human rights commitment, political clout, and a mandate to reach out bilaterally in Geneva and in the world's capitals on priority issues -- someone cut from the same cloth as Max Kampelman, who back in the 1980s led the U.S. delegation in ensuring that critical democracy and human rights components became a permanent part of what later became the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

But Obama has already lost valuable time and resources. The previous U.S. ambassador to Geneva stepped down in January and a replacement has yet to be named, meaning that there was no ambassador in place on Sept. 14, when the United States took its seat as a full council member at the current session. Moreover, the United States has not made a decision on whether it will appoint a single permanent representative for Geneva, whose broad portfolio will include the council, or whether it will take the important step of appointing an ambassador exclusively for the Human Rights Council (as it does for the World Trade Organization, also based in Geneva). The ambassador will also need increased staffing in Geneva, New York, and Washington to handle the now year-round work of the council.

Just as importantly, the new ambassador will need political support at the administration's highest levels. The confirmation of an assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor will provide an important, if long overdue, senior human rights voice in this administration, but the U.S. mission will need the backing of the secretary of state herself if it is to succeed.

Rights-abusing countries have invested considerable energy in making the Human Rights Council serve their own purposes. Reclaiming the council as a body that protects victims rather than abusers will take an equal investment of time and resources. The Obama administration, which still enjoys remarkable international popularity and goodwill, has the rare chance to do so. Let us hope this chance is not wasted.



Got Nukes?

The United States and Russia are in talks to cut back their nuclear arsenals. But shouldn't we just worry about how many there are -- and where they are -- first?

As the world frets over Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, a more sizable nuclear issue is garnering little notice. The United States and Russia began negotiating further modest reductions in their nuclear arsenals earlier this year, with the latest round of meetings expected next week. Despite their progress, the negotiations have failed to address a fundamental question: Does it make any sense to cut down weapons stocks when we don't even know just how many there are -- and where?

The United States and Russia have by far the world's largest nuclear weapons stockpiles, with approximately 5,000 and 13,000 operational and reserve warheads, respectively. (North Korea's Kim Jong Il, by contrast, has a handful of weapons at most). Since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed in 1991, Washington and Moscow have regularly exchanged data on their arsenals and conducted inspections, taking some of the guesswork out of assessing the two countries' capabilities. But these measures have only scratched the surface. START is primarily concerned with accounting for nuclear launchers--ballistic missiles and bombers--and does very little to account for all nuclear warheads. Such limited transparency in U.S. and Russian stockpiles contributes only modestly to global security.

Far from being a formality, disclosures about nuclear stocks provide a measure of security in their own right. Potential adversaries who know the capabilities of their opponents are more likely to make sensible threat assessments and less likely to overreact. Data about a country's arsenal would also reassure others about its intentions. If their scope were broadened and accompanied by more stringent verification, data exchanges could profoundly affect U.S.-Russia relations.

Imagine, for example, if each country knew the location and status of the other's complete stockpile of warheads. With the right cataloging technology in place, each could be reasonably confident that the other was not preparing a pre-emptive nuclear attack against it -- one lingering concern in negotiations today. Achieving this type of transparency would necessitate the registration, verification, and tracking of all warheads such that both countries could monitor their positions in real time. If one country attempted to move or deploy weapons, the other would notice -- a check that would likely prevent any such action from taking place. Further technical work would be needed to ensure that neither side could cheat. But the sooner such a system is in place, the sooner confidence between the two nuclear powers will grow.

U.S. and Russian negotiators began prioritizing this kind of detailed transparency in the 1990s as START negotiations progressed. But when those talks faltered, discussion of weapons disclosures and verification fell off the agenda. Back then, the greatest impediments were concerns that revealing sensitive information about nuclear weapons stockpiles and their historical production would make those stocks more vulnerable to attack. Both sides also worried that disclosure could contribute to proliferation by providing information to states and groups that wouldn't otherwise have access to it. (An even more frightening and viable explanation for the faltering transparency talks is that neither country knew just how many nuclear warheads it had produced.)

These same concerns would likely arise again today. But faced with a daunting list of emerging security challenges -- from terrorism to energy to infectious diseases -- policymakers in the United States and Russia should be eager to find new ways to improve nuclear security. U.S. and Russian officials alike acknowledge being weighed down, financially and politically, by the burden of balancing nuclear security with nuclear weapons' role as a deterrent. They are begging for a better way. A real-time, verified nuclear weapons database would offer just that.

Implementing such a system would not be easy. Both countries' national laws restrict the availability of nuclear weapons information, and security apparatuses on both sides have a long history of protecting nuclear secrets. Indeed, both states have relied on a certain ambiguity about the size and nature of their nuclear weapons stockpiles to amplify their power. Unaware what their potential adversary was capable of, the Cold War superpowers prepared for the worst, fueling the arms race. Now, the reverse strategy -- transparency -- is needed to build stability and trust between the two nuclear powers.

Of course, the question of whether nuclear reductions are preferable to nuclear accountability is a false choice. An ideal world would see substantially fewer nuclear weapons and the exchange of precise, regularly updated information about remaining weapons' whereabouts. But for now, counting the nukes would be a good start.

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