Argument

Defender of the Flame

Not only does the United States deserve a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, it’s leading the charge.

On November 12, the United States won reelection to the U.N. Human Rights Council, ensuring continued U.S. leadership for an additional three years. Our reelection, while certainly a victory for the United States, is also an important reminder of the central role the country plays and must continue to play on the international human rights stage.

Notwithstanding clear benefits that flow from continued U.S. engagement, critics continue to express disapproval of the U.S. role at the council. It's time to put some of these criticisms to rest.

One well-rehearsed critique boils down to this: The United States should not engage with the Human Rights Council because it is irredeemably flawed. The defects of the council are well known -- a persistent anti-Israel bias, membership that includes states with poor human rights records, and political-regional bloc dynamics that obstruct action. Yes, the council certainly is imperfect.

Yet those who argue that because of these flaws the United States should simply disengage misunderstand our responsibility on human rights and underestimate the value of U.S. leadership. The United States must sustain its leadership role on the council because of, not in spite of, its shortcomings.

The United States has been one of the few voices at the Human Rights Council speaking out against the anti-Israel bias. America has helped turn the council's focus to real time human rights crises such as Libya and Syria.

Admittedly, we cannot and should not turn a blind eye to the fact that dictators such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez were granted seats at the table. This can, and does, undermine the legitimacy of the council. But for the United States to step away rather than doubling down on our leadership responsibilities, and cooperating with the numerous members of the council who are staunch defenders of human rights, would be running from rather than tackling a problem. Indeed, while council membership remains far from ideal, this reality only makes the case for continued and vigorous U.S. engagement stronger.

The more surprising criticism has come from human rights activists who voice the view that the United States does not deserve a seat at the table because of our human rights record at home. We are first to admit that no country has a perfect human rights record, the United States included. But the United States is proud of its human rights record.

We strive constantly to improve our human rights practices and policies. America's aim is to help to build a world in which universal rights give strength and direction to all nations and institutions. As President Barack Obama has underscored, U.S. action in the world rests on commitment to "the inherent rights and dignity of every individual." The United States is not exempt from these ideals, and understands that the standards of membership at the council require that we live up to these standards.

In our first term at the council, the United States focused energy on creating a credible body capable of responding to the urgent human rights crises of our time. To a large degree, that vision is now being realized. The most egregious and urgent human rights crises now top the agenda. Voices of human rights defenders are amplified. Cross-regional partnerships based on shared human rights commitments are no longer the exception, but the rule. And the council has found a new ability to rapidly confront urgent human rights crises in real time. In sum, the Human Rights Council's relevance and effectiveness have increased dramatically, in part because of active U.S. engagement.

An important case in point is the crisis in Syria, where the council has been on the frontlines, first dispatching a fact-finding mission that focused international attention on the nascent crisis and then creating an international Commission of Inquiry to document systematic and gross violations by the Bashar al-Assad regime. In the past 18 months of this conflict, the Human Rights Council is arguably the only international entity that has lived up to its responsibility, by creating a record that can ensure justice and accountability will be available for the Syrian people.

Despite resistance from some undemocratic governments, the United States helped strengthen core values such as women's equality, freedom of expression, and human rights of LGBT people. And we have helped restore confidence in the council's ability to address politically difficult thematic and country-specific situations.

When President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton decided to join the council, they had deep confidence that U.S. leadership would advance individual liberty around the globe. The record shows that their confidence was well placed. Protection of human rights is not only central to what the United States is as a nation but also as a foundation for our security. The United States must not retreat from the defense of the fundamental freedoms we hold so dear. If we are to live up to our responsibilities as a global leader, we must continue to invest, lead, and fight for human rights at the council. 

KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Apocalypse Mao

China's Xi Jinping faces a host of challenges: a slowing economy, stagnating political reform. But the country's black skies and red rivers ought to be his top priority.

The outline of China's looming environmental challenges may be familiar, but the details are so staggering that they bear recounting: The dark side of being the world's factory for three decades is a landscape of rivers, fields, and smoggy cities now so degraded that the World Bank estimates pollution damages annually siphon off 5.8 percent of China's GDP. The poor are disproportionately affected, and 242 million rural residents -- roughly the entire population of Indonesia -- lack access to clean drinking water. Cancer is the country's leading cause of mortality, implicated in nearly one in four deaths.

China's major cities remain cloaked in smog. And though environmental officials have successfully shuttered many polluting factories, the fast-multiplying number of vehicles in the world's top auto market poses another air-quality challenge. Likewise, the environmental ministry knows that dangerous levels of heavy-metal pollution contaminates a tenth of China's farmland (prolonged exposure causes organ and nerve-damage, among other problems), but cleaning up is another matter.

If only China had the luxury of just focusing on existing problems. But water scarcity -- China is home to a fifth of the world's population, but just 7 percent of available freshwater resources -- is likely to become more dire, as another 350 million people transition from rural areas to urban lifestyles, and bustling metropolises rise in the country's arid west. Proposed engineering solutions, like the massively ambitious South-to-North Water Diversion Project, threaten to do as much environmental harm as good. The aquifer under the North China Plain, the country's breadbasket, is fast being depleted. Some 243 lakes have vanished in the past five decades.

With national energy demand rising steeply, China's coal consumption tripled between 2000 and 2010. Eighty percent of China's electricity is now generated from coal, which is also responsible for 85 percent of the country's acid rain-causing sulfur-dioxide emissions and a major contributor to its greenhouse-gas total. A central government-led push to develop renewable energy -- including the expansion of wind, solar, hydropower, and nuclear energy -- has complemented but not offset the growing appetite for coal. And now the country's plans to expand large western coal bases seem poised to collide with regional water shortages (the operation of coal-fired plants is highly water-intensive), as HSBC concludes in its September report, "No Water, No Power."

In its quest to develop alternative -- or rather, additional -- energy sources, in early November China's government announced subsidies to speed the development of shale gas. Although the International Energy Agency has estimated China's total theoretically recoverable gas reserves from shale beds to be 150 percent that of the United States -- a vast quantity -- production has so far been a trickle, largely because China's shale beds tend to lie in mountainous and geologically difficult to access regions. If shale gas production picks up in earnest, it would provide a cleaner-burning fuel source, but could also aggravate water scarcity problems and contribute to ground-water contamination in a country where regulations meant to protect farmers living adjacent to mining sites are often trampled in the name of rapid development.

And then there's climate change. China has since 2010 been the world's top emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but it is also among the countries most vulnerable to its impacts. Scientists estimate that extreme weather events -- such as last summer's prolonged drought and the severe blizzard of 2008 -- cause the loss of nearly 10 percent of China's grain output annually. The diminished flow of the Yangtze River last year stalled hydropower plants and led to rolling blackouts. Climate change will alter the intensity and duration of monsoon seasons across Asia, but models remain fuzzy as to what the future of regional agriculture will look like. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently listed China's Pearl River Delta -- including the megacity port of Guangzhou -- as among the urban areas most likely to be engulfed by sea-level rise.

When it comes to China, Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump and until recently the Asia environment correspondent at the Guardian newspaper, argues that the environment is everything -- "a prism" through which to assess the country's worsening economic and human health. As Watts explained at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards in Beijing this spring: "Mostly the environment is treated as a subcategory and posted away to certain pages in newspapers and on the websites. But it should not be a niche interest; it should be mainstream. The ecology is the basis for the economy, not the other way around."

There has long been an assumption that, somehow, China will muddle through: that these are serious, slow-boil issues, but never the country's most urgent. The attitude of China's government has historically been that the country should first get rich, and then clean up its environment (the key variable by which local officials are evaluated for promotion remains GDP growth). Or that somehow, technology will come through in time -- to squeeze more water out of dry land, or to bury carbon in the ground instead of releasing it into the sky.

Ma Jun -- author of China's Water Crisis, 2012 Goldman International Environmental Prize recipient, and one of the country's most prominent green activists -- says that many problems in China persist or worsen "not because of lack of technology, but lack of motivation."China has at its disposal tools and strategies it could deploy to move more quickly toward solutions, but without a free press, independent court system, and vibrant civil society to force change, it often seems more convenient to bury bad news than to respond to it, he says, especially for officials far from Beijing. Or to purchase water-treatment or smokestack-cleaning equipment, but then trim electricity costs by rarely turning them on.

But in recent years, we've seen a new dynamic: people in China's wealthiest cities are no longer willing to cut corners, or to wait and see. Armed with smartphones, social media and more access to information, they are increasingly willing to take to the streets, in prosperous cities like Ningbo, Dalian, and Xiamen to oppose the government's secrecy in approving projects and to call for chemical plants -- which they believe may lead to harmful health impacts -- to be shuttered. In just a year, the number of major environmental protests jumped 120 percent, according to Yang Chaofei, vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences.

The recent protests reveal not only concern about environment, but also fraying trust for officialdom. Even after the government of Ningbo pledged last month to stop the expansion of a PX plant, one 30-year-old protestor told me: "We don't know if the chemical plant really will be cancelled. Most of us think our city governors are just politicians and liars.... There are still some projects being carried out that will also pollute the soil we live on, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. We'll still keep our eyes on them." He added: "The environment is a reflection of the political issue."

At an event on the sidelines of the 18th Party Congress, Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian told reporters that new bids for large industrial projects must now include assessments of their potential impact on "social stability." It seems Beijing is finally hearing that message -- that environmental damage can cause political fallout.

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