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Trying to Reform the United Nations from the Inside

Human rights advocates disagree on whether the U.S. will help by joining a controversial council.

The U.S. State Department announced last Tuesday it would run for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, signaling a change in policy. Many see the organization as committed, ironically, to the interests of human rights violators and question whether the U.S. should be involved.

Last week, the council adopted a resolution against the defamation of religions that was opposed by the Western nations on the council. The statement implies religions, like individuals, have rights. Critics said the nonbinding resolution would actually be used by the Muslim countries that promoted it to persecute Christians and other religious minorities.

The council has passed similar resolutions despite European and North American objections. Because the council structure gives seats by geographic region, human rights violators can often win. Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and China are running for re-election.

The U.S. began to sit in on council meetings as an observer about a month ago. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said it was a change in approach, not perception.

"We share the concerns of many that the council's trajectory is disturbing," he said. "It needs fundamental change to do more to promote and protect the human rights of people around the world, and … it should end its repeated and unbalanced criticisms of Israel."

The council adopted five resolutions about Israel in the March session.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice emphasized that the U.S.'s candidacy is "with the goal of working to make [the council] a more effective body to promote and protect human rights." They also said the formal review of the council in 2011 may lead to reform.

The 47-member council set elections by world region for May. New Zealand withdrew its bid for the opening seat to make sure the U.S. gets full support.

Thomas Farr, former director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, doubts that the Obama administration's pursuit of "engagement" will lead to effective membership. "Engagement is very risky because it's a method, not an end," he said.

Farr says some are even concerned about the State Department's commitment to liberties abroad. "A negative view of Clinton's recent visit to China would be that she de-emphasized human rights and freedom to do other business."

There is also the specter of the failed U.N. Human Rights Commission. David Gushee, president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, described the commission as odious because of its leaders' flagrant human rights violations. It was dissolved in 2006.

Todd Deatherage, a former State Department official, says the Bush-era State Department debated whether to join the Human Rights Council after the commission dissolved. "We wanted some kind of criteria to keep flagrant human rights abusers off the membership," he said. The U.N. never set up such criteria, and the U.S. did not pursue membership.

The Obama administration could influence the agenda and the 2011 re-evaluation, Deatherage says. "They may have more leverage from the inside. They certainly are lending American credibility to that flawed institution," he said.

Richard Land, a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, agrees. But, he said, "The Bush approach hasn't seemed to work very well."

Land would support membership in the council "if the Obama approach enables the administration to make the Human Rights Council less of an embarrassment and more of a force for real human rights in the world. If they are not able to do so, then I would expect them to abandon the approach."

Gushee says that "hopeful yet sober engagement" is biblical and shows faith in God's sovereignty as it demonstrates goodwill. "Whether the goal is positive change or just damage control, these things happen best if you're in there, getting your hands dirty, addressing the issues directly instead of withdrawing," he said.

Farr agrees, but only in part. "Engagement with adversaries is a very smart thing to do if you have a distinct goal and the leverage and the influence — both carrots and sticks — to achieve those goals," he said "Otherwise, we're just going to get our clocks cleaned."

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