The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, announced his intention to take up UN reform with a vengeance in this new year, including creation of a new, stronger Human Rights Council.
The council is intended to replace the much-maligned UN Commission on Human Rights, a body that, according to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, "casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations as a whole."
But Bolton's first swing at this target was self-serving: He proposed that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States, be guaranteed seats on the Human Rights Council.
This proposal would do little to address the credibility problems that plagued the commission and will be strongly opposed by many states concerned about the power already vested in the "permanent five."
Bolton and administration officials have clarified that they seek agreement to a "practice" rather than a rule guaranteeing them membership. But Bolton's comments illustrate the lack of focus and commitment plaguing U.S. efforts on the Human Rights Council.
World leaders agreed to establish the council in September, but since then the United States has been a reluctant suitor. Bolton did not attend negotiations on the council and publicly expressed skepticism about meeting deadlines to establish it, leaving many in New York to question whether the United States is squarely behind this reform. Its apparent disregard for the council emboldened spoilers like Egypt and Pakistan and complicated the task of reform.
Replacing the Human Rights commission with a more effective Human Rights Council would serve U.S. and UN interests. The United States has much to gain from a body that would speak out against human rights violations in countries like North Korea and Iran, a point that led the bipartisan UN reform task force headed by the former congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell to endorse creation of the council.
The United States needs to redouble its efforts to establish a Human Rights Council that is a real improvement. A public push for the council by Washington and its mission in New York would show that backtracking on human rights protection is not an option.
The United States must also redirect its attention to the key changes needed to ensure an effective council. The commission's credibility gap arises in large part from the inclusion of some of the world's worst abusers in its ranks.
Rather than rushing to secure its own seat (and those of Russia and China), the United States should be pushing an electoral system that will better ensure that states elected to the council are there to protect human rights, not shield themselves from criticism.
Members of the new council should be chosen by direct vote and by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly rather than a simple majority. Regional groups should be required to submit more candidates than the number of slots allotted to their region, and states seeking election must agree to abide by the highest standards of human rights and to cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council and its experts.
These rules may complicate U.S. election to the council, but since when does the United States shy away from a free and fair election? Washington should be able to convince others that the council is stronger with the United States on it.
States hostile to human rights, although never in a majority, have been unduly influential within the commission because of its working methods. The United States must ensure the council functions differently.
The commission met once a year for a six-week session, which enabled game-playing by members and hamstrung its ability to respond quickly to human-rights crises. The new council must be able to follow through on its recommendations and to react promptly to the next Darfur or Rwanda. It should meet regularly throughout the year, and be able to convene additional meetings quickly at the request of one-third of its members, its chair, the UN secretary general or the UN high commissioner for human rights.
Management reform could take many months to show results, but a new Human Rights Council is achievable now. A broad coalition of democracies and human-rights defenders from across the world supports its creation. John Bolton and the US administration have a rare opportunity to create a council that would fulfill the promise of the UN Charter, give new hope to victims, and breathe life into the UN reform effort. They must not squander it.