Libya election ignites concerns about U.S. on Human Rights Council

The controversial election of Libya to the United Nations Human Rights Council this week has ignited concerns about the role of the U.S. on the panel.

A year ago, the U.S. ran on an uncontested slate of candidates for one of the slots on the council. Reversing the policy of the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration said the best way to reform the council was from within, and vowed to use America's seat on the controversial panel to effect change.

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Yet human-rights groups pleaded with the administration to stop the election of Libya, Angola, Malaysia, Uganda and Thailand, which were among the 14 nations to again run on an uncontested slate and secure a spot on the council.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice would not reveal how the U.S. voted on Libya's candidacy, which got 155 votes out of 192 members in the General Assembly on Thursday.

"I think it’s fair to say that this year, there is a small number of countries whose human rights records is problematic that are likely to be elected and we regret that," Rice told reporters Thursday. "I’m not going to sit here and name names. I don’t think it’s particularly constructive at this point."

She lauded Iran's withdrawal from the ballot in April in the face of protests over its run for a seat on the council, though last month Iran won a seat on the Commission on the Status of Women, on which the U.S. also sits.

“Libya’s farcical ‘election’ also debunks the myth that unconditional U.S. participation in the Human Rights Council has improved that body," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday.

"Without meaningful membership standards, that body will remain nothing more than a rogues’ gallery, and our participation will have the net result of legitimizing its biased actions."

Democratic leaders on the House and Senate foreign relations panels did not respond to requests for comment.

Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said that the U.S. could have actively tried to get another African nation to run on the ballot, giving Libya some competition. The lack of competitiveness in the election yet again was a major sore spot for human-rights groups.

"Iran's withdrawal showed that international pressure can improve the membership of the council, and demonstrated the importance of competitive elections for seats," said Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

Even though Libya would have likely succeeded anyway, said Bolton, "part of representing America at U.N. is standing for principle."

"Does it outrage me that Libya was elected? No," Bolton told The Hill. "It's entirely predictable that the council would turn out to be as bad or worse than its predecessor."

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the current council in 2006. Many mark the beginning of that commission's end to be the election of Libya as chair in 2003. Reporters Without Borders, one of the human-rights groups that lobbied to keep Libya off the council, predicted a similar loss of credibility now for the current panel.

"Many political leaders and NGOs think that by incorporating the less democratic countries into the Human Rights Council the situation in these countries will gradually improve," the press-freedom organization said in a statement. "The examples of China and Cuba, which have been members of the Council for years, show that this is not the case."

Rice stressed that the U.S. believes countries with strong records in favor of human rights should sit on the council.

"And those that don’t meet that standard really don’t merit membership on the Human Rights Council," she said. "But in this body, as in other U.N. bodies, there will always be countries whose orientations and perspectives we don’t agree with, and yet we have to work with them. And that’s what we will do in this context as well."

Rice also touted progress that the U.S. has made on the council, including pushing the U.S. "perspective on the problematic concept of defamation of religion," a resolution pushed by the nations in the Organization of the Islamic Conference that singles out defamation of Islam but critics contend violates free speech.

"It will take time, no doubt, for our efforts and those of others to bear fruit and it’s not a task that the United States can accomplish on its own," Rice said. "But we remain committed to strengthening and reforming this Council."

Some observers remain skeptical after witnessing the first year of the U.S. on the council, which wraps up with a session next month.

"They've done some things to try to achieve progress and might have achieved some modest progress in some limited areas," Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based UN Watch, told The Hill.

The year has included resolutions against North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Guinea, which Rice lauded Thursday. But Neuer, who noted that it only takes 16 of the council's 47 members to trigger an emergency session, said it was a "terrible disappointment" that there haven't been attempts to call out countries such as Iran, Syria, Libya and Zimbabwe, and no response to incidents such as the killings of hundreds in Nigerian religious violence.

"We welcomed the U.S. participation a year ago provided that they would speak out against abuses," Neuer said. "We haven't seen what it is we're looking for."

Bolton predicted that the U.S. will increasingly become a target of Libya and other nations on the council, but said the administration will forge ahead regardless because "they are desperate to find some success in their ideological pursuit of multilateralism."

"The only way to deal with a fundamentally flawed body is not participate," he said. "When you're not willing to stand up against Iran or Libya you have to ask what you're there for."

Libya, which is ranked as one of the "world's most repressive societies" by Freedom House and where, according to Amnesty International, free expression can bring the death penalty, voted against resolutions condemning human-rights violations in Iran, Myanmar and North Korea over the past year at the General Assembly.

Observers will be keeping a close eye on the second year of America's council term, which expires in 2012.

"We haven't reached the conclusion that the U.S. shouldn't be on it, but we are concerned with what it's done so far and what needs to be done to make its membership meaningful," Neuer said.

“The scorecard for America’s year on the Council? Anti-Israel resolutions: 6; resolutions and special sessions on Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Libya: Zero," Ros-Lehtinen said.

“The U.S. should immediately withdraw its participation and funding from this compromised Human Rights Council and leverage them to produce sweeping, effective reform,” the congresswoman said.