The Magazine

Europe vs. Human Rights

Why the United States got thrown off the U.N. Human Rights Commission

May 21, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 34 • By NINA SHEA
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AMERICANS WERE SHOCKED WHEN our European allies took the lead in ousting us from the United Nations Human Rights Commission early this month. Having served as a member of the U.S. delegation at the recently concluded annual session of the commission, I was less surprised. Contrary to reports in the media, the ouster was not a reaction to American "unilateralism" on issues such as missile defense and global warming. Rather, the Europeans' action reflects the abandonment of their historical commitment to human rights.

Whereas in the past, the Western European delegations were in the forefront of the commission's work, highlighting injustices in South Africa, East Timor, and Bosnia, they now resort to euphemisms and half-truths. The United States stands virtually alone in striving to focus world attention on actual violations of human rights. Repeatedly at the commission, the United States has had to break with the European Union in order to vote its conscience on issues like slavery in Sudan, religious persecution in China, and political repression in Cuba. The United States often stands alone, too, in opposing blatantly political condemnations of Israel. The loss of its seat on the commission is meant to punish the United States for marching out of step.

For the fact is, the United States is deeply resented, not only by the despotic regimes that pack the commission -- the likes of Libya, Algeria, Cuba, Syria, and Vietnam -- but also by our European Union allies, who dislike being forced to vote in public on measures censuring countries with which they hope to conclude trade deals. It was the Europeans who flouted the settled practice by which one of the three "Western Group" seats on the commission is reserved for the United States. When France, Austria, and Sweden all insisted on competing for seats this year, they forced the Economic and Social Council, which oversees the commission, to resolve the matter by secret ballot. Newspaper editorials from Copenhagen to Madrid are expressing satisfaction with the American ouster, sneering that go-it-alone U.S. behavior in international forums represents "boorish" isolationism. A European ambassador confidently told me that in a few years there will be no more "finger-pointing" on the Human Rights Commission.

If the United States is to win back its seat in 2002 and prove him wrong, it will need to develop a strategy for reversing four trends that are hastening the commission's decline into irrelevancy.

* First, a new dominant culture requires that the commission pass its resolution by consensus. The Europeans favor this, as do states with poor records on human rights. Consensus politics means that Sudan, say, gets to help draft the resolution censuring itself. The Khartoum government, which Secretary of State Colin Powell recently called "the biggest single abuser of human rights on Earth," thus was able to have removed from the latest resolution all mention of slavery -- even though the commission's rapporteurs have documented the involvement of Khartoum's militias in the practice of slavery in seven consecutive annual reports. The European Union-sponsored resolution on Sudan was so weak that the United States was forced to abstain and make a statement of protest.

* Second, the commission -- like many a U.N. forum -- frowns on the practice of naming violators of human rights in open debate. Under an unwritten understanding supported by the EU, the proceedings follow a 19-point "thematic" agenda, and under only one of these themes is it deemed permissible to mention countries by name. (The lone exception: Israel may be criticized at any time. During the recent six-week session, the commission adopted five resolutions censuring Israel, over U.S. objections.)

The United States refuses to go along with this. Thus, during the discussion of "human rights defenders," American delegates mentioned case after case of particular defense lawyers, journalists, clergy, and other human rights activists in specified countries who have been imprisoned or murdered for their work. In contrast, speaking for the EU, the Swedish ambassador addressed the issue in platitudes and generalities. The same pattern held whether the subject under discussion was persecuted religious believers, vulnerable groups, or those imprisoned for exercising the international right to free expression. At most, EU delegates were willing to cite countries for failing to cooperate with a commission rapporteur.