Coming on the heels of not speaking out on Iran’s election last week to the Commission on the Status of Women and three other UN Committees, Susan Rice, the sometimes American Ambassador to the UN, today didn’t even mention Libya’s name when asked about the African country’s election to the UN’s Human Rights Council.
It was a softball question to Rice from a veteran UN reporter: “Some human rights groups have complained about Libya joining the Council, do you share those concerns?”
Rice said that sticking with diplomatic tradition, she wouldn’t reveal how America votes. And then she went on to compliment the Human Rights Council’s work. It was a stunning blow to human rights activists around the world.
The Obama Administration last year joined the Human Rights Council after the Bush Administration took America off the UN committee for its lack of action on serious issues and its inability to name violators of human rights. The Bush team felt strongly that the Council was spending too much time beating up on the U.S. and Israel and too little time looking at serious human rights violators. And while the Bush Administration withheld the Human Rights Council’s funding in protest, the Obama Administration restored it. In re-joining the UN’s Council, Obama and Rice said that it would be better to work from within rather than criticize from the outside. But now that Rice is inside the Council, she doesn’t have the guts to say the name of the newly elected country that has a history of rights violations and terrorism. Today Rice repeated her claim, “…it is preferable to work from within to shape and reform a body with the importance and potential of the Human Rights Council, rather than to stay on the sidelines and reject it.”
So let’s look at Rice’s attempts to “shape” the Council for this year’s vote.
In typical UN fashion, four African countries were running for four regional seats on the world body’s most prominent human rights committee. Although Rice has known for weeks that Libya would win a seat on the Human Rights Council because there was no competition for the African seats, she chose not to highlight the issue before the vote or attempt to find another African candidate to challenge the election status quo. In a letter sent to Rice by more than 30 human rights organizations before the vote, the clean slate attempt by the Africans was highlighted as a violation of the original reform commitment. The letter said, “This contravenes the 2006 promise that the reformed Council would bring competitive elections, and sets a poor example.” Rice ignored the human rights groups’ appeal and didn’t try to make a competitive race for Libya.
Making no attempt to find another candidate country is not working to “shape” the Council as Rice claims the U.S. is doing by joining it. Shaping the Council means that you help elect countries that have a strong human rights record and you work to keep countries that violate human rights off the Council. Rice didn’t speak up to highlight the problem, didn’t try to find another candidate and couldn’t utter Libya’s name today.
But Rice did compliment the Human Rights Council for its work. Although the Council hasn’t been able to seriously confront widespread rights violations in Sudan, North Korea, Burma or Cuba, Rice thinks the Council deserves praise for its important efforts. Contributions like the Council’s condemnation of Israel for war crimes in Gaza, or the recent statement by 6 UN human rights experts that the new Arizona law on illegal immigration could violate international standards.
Even Former Secretary General Kofi Annan recommended reforming the Human Rights Council by limiting membership and questioning the regional voting system that creates geographic quotas in his March 2005 report titled, `In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights For All’. To be fair, you can’t blame the UN when the members fail to act. But we can expect the American representative to show up and speak with moral clarity.
What is clear is that Susan Rice hasn’t found her voice at the UN even though she has been in the job for over a year. It’s hard to take her seriously when in one week’s time she doesn’t speak out on Iran’s election to a UN Committee to promote women’s rights nor Libya’s ascension to sit and judge human rights violators. One has to ask, how is staying silent “working from within”? And how is doing nothing to stop a human rights violator from getting elected to a human rights committee “shaping the Council”? If working from within means that Rice loses her voice, then America needs a stronger voice at the UN.