Former House Foreign Affairs CoS Yleem Poblete: Honor President Kennedy and Reform the UN to Defend Human Rights

Guest Commentary

The grim anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination affords us an opportunity to assess his legacy and recall his words. One JFK quote is particularly poignant in light of recent events: “If men and women are in chains anywhere in the world, then freedom is endangered everywhere.” 

Kennedy’s statement was likely influenced by the experience of World War II and the beginning of the global struggle between free, democratic nations and oppressive, communist regimes.  In many ways, it encapsulated the raison d’être of the United Nations, as the protection and defense of human rights are enshrined in its founding Charter. 

But the UN has lost its way. 

Just last week, the U.N. General Assembly selected China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Cuba to the U.N. Human Rights Council. These nations are gross violators of fundamental liberties, yet they have been rewarded with a seat on the “inter-governmental body within the United Nations system…responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe."  While deplorable, this development comes as no surprise.

The Human Rights Council is structured in such a way that dictatorships, not democracies, are empowered; the oppressors, not the oppressed, are protected.

It is an endemic problem that then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was warned about when he proposed to shift away from the failed UN Human Rights Commission and establish a new model.

Experience had shown that membership drove the agenda at these forums. Yet, the Secretary General’s reform plan did not establish eligibility criteria for the new Human Rights Council. It merely called for a country’s record to be taken into consideration but did not require adherence, in word or deed, with international human rights standards.

Expanding the pool of candidates to the full UN General Assembly further doomed the Council to failure. UN observers and human rights groups cautioned that certain regional groupings were controlled by despotic regimes and held the majority of votes in the Assembly. The proposed structure would therefore magnify the collective power of oppressive rulers while marginalizing the influence of democracies. Despite concerns, the new UN human rights body was approved.

Five years later, in 2011, following the periodic review mandated upon the Council’s creation, Annan touted its accomplishments and defended its inclusive composition. He stated: “to be effective, this body must be accountable to all countries – not only to a few – and also be broadly representative. The Human Rights Council is both.”  Notably, when he was advocating for a new human rights entity, he praised the flawed one he was seeking to replace, referring to “the six decades of valuable work undertaken by the Commission on Human Rights, and its commendable record of establishing norms and setting standards.”

The reality is the Council has met the worst expectations.  Except in the most egregious of cases where the rising death toll has left no option but to speak out - as with Qaddafi in Libya and Assad in Syria — the Human Rights Council tends to target democratic nations such as Israel, while minimizing or ignoring systematic abuses by repressive governments.

Even when the Council does finally condemn or criticize an abhorrent situation, other UN bodies contradict it.

For example, as the Syrian regime continued the slaughter of its people, it was elected “by consensus” in November 2012 to human rights committees of the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  It was re-elected in March of this year.

The charade must end.

Members of the House of Representatives took an initial step in 2007 toward addressing some of the problems identified. They adopted by voice vote an amendment to the State Department and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill preventing U.S. dues payments to the UN regular budget from being used to support the Human Rights Council.

Much more needs to be done.

Let the words of President Kennedy serve as a call to action to reform the UN’s human rights mechanisms, hold accountable serial violators, and help free the oppressed from the chains of tyranny-- whether far away or just 90 miles from U.S. shores. 

Dr. Yleem D.S. Poblete served for close to two decades on the staff of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, including as its Chief of Staff.  During her Hill tenure, she was involved in multiple legislative efforts to reform the United Nations system.