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

Nina Shea

Americans were shocked when our European allies took the lead in ousting us from the United Nations Human Rights Commission. 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.

The European Union says it prefers "cooperation" to public pressure. French diplomats point to China, explaining that civilized dialogue coaxed China to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In making this argument, the French ignore China's recent labor camp detentions of Catholic bishops and thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, its destruction of a thousand churches just before Christmas, and its revival of the practice of confining dissidents in psychiatric institutions. A German diplomat recently named special rapporteur for Sudan similarly cited the commission's success at gaining that country's cooperation in establishing with international funding a committee to eradicate slavery. But of the tens of thousands of people thought to be enslaved in Sudan, this committee has rescued only 353, in a single highly publicized event shortly after its establishment two years ago. Slaves, meanwhile, continue to be captured in government-sponsored raids. Clearly, cooperation is a fiction invented to protect Europe's honor and to shield the reputations of abusive governments.

Third, there is Europe's China problem. China is the country that stands to gain most from the U.S. ouster so much so that some observers believe eagerness to curry favor with this important trading partner was the Europeans' main motivation for running three candidates. Next year, with the United States out of the way, there will be no embarrassing resolution of censure that China will have to work hard to defeat. This session, the United States was the lone sponsor of the draft resolution against China, having failed to garner the European support it had through most of the 1990s.

China's open bullying and use of trade levers are well known at the commission. After Denmark introduced the resolution citing Chinese human rights abuses in 1997, China threatened to make the issue "a rock that smashes on the Danish government's head. Denmark, the bird that pokes out its head, will suffer the most." That was the last time the United States was able to secure co-sponsorship of the measure. Beijing tolerates no criticism of its human rights abuses on U.N. premises. After Freedom House arranged a press conference with Chinese democracy activists during last year's session, China, with the support of Sudan and Cuba, brought proceedings against the group to bar it from participating at future sessions.

Fourth, resolutions dealing with economic rights for groups and even governments are proliferating. These "rights" as envisioned in the resolution are unachievable, depending as they would for their implementation on wholesale transfers of wealth and technology from developed to undeveloped nations. At the 2001 session, a dozen resolutions passed, some at European initiative, on the rights to food, water, housing, HIV/AIDS drugs, education, development, and a host of other economic issues.

A "right to development" resolution, introduced by the Non-Aligned Movement (alive and well a decade after the Cold War), names among other obstacles to development "the existing intellectual property rights regime [and other] impediments to transfer of technology." Incredibly, only Japan joined the United States in opposing this resolution. All of Western Europe voted for it except the United Kingdom, which abstained. In the past, the champion of economic rights was the Soviet bloc. Then as now, the main purpose served by debating such unenforceable rights is to distract attention from governments' refusal to enforce the civil and political rights of the individual.

To reverse these four deplorable trends is a tall order; an impossible one unless the Europeans come to their senses. Eleanor Roosevelt and the other drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the first Commission on Human Rights in 1947 believed that moral suasion could be a potent force for change. Since then, Western Europe has made important contributions in advocating human rights abroad and been an essential American partner at the commission in giving a voice to the voiceless. If the European nations do not return to this tradition, the commission will have outlived its usefulness whether or not the United States recaptures a seat.


Nina Shea. "Europe vs. Human Rights." The Weekly Standard 6, no. 34(May 21, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission of The Weekly Standard. It first appeared on April 3, 2000. For more information on subscribing to The Weekly Standard please call 1-800-283-2014.


Nina Shea is director of the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom for Freedom House. She is director of the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom for Freedom House. Nina Shea

Copyright 2001 Weekly Standard



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