Iran: The Final Test for the UN Human Rights Council

Perhaps the harshest critic of the now-deceased United Nations Commission on Human Rights was the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. In a wide-ranging report on UN reform published in 2005, Annan charged that "states have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others." Out of this pithy observation, the UN Human Rights Council was born, with a remit to protect human rights by insisting that, before anything else, its member states exhibit the "highest standards" in their own human rights records.

The Council, however, quickly reverted to the habits of its predecessor, earning a rebuke from Annan during his last days in office, when he stated that the new body had "clearly not justified all the hopes that so many of us placed in it." Among the most glaring of those habits is the presence of serial human rights violators on the Council -- for example, both Cuba and Saudi Arabia will be serving on the Council until 2012. There is, too, an institutionalized obsession with Israel, a country which became, much to Annan's chagrin, a permanent agenda item in 2007. This year alone, the Council has passed six resolutions condemning Israel, the last one demanding an "independent fact-finding mission" -- the same formula behind the now notorious Goldstone report -- into the recent Gaza flotilla clash.

For these and other reasons, the Bush Administration shunned the Human Rights Council as a body not worthy of the name. While based on a perfectly correct diagnosis, that stance nonetheless invited the charge which can be levelled at most boycotts: that they are more about edifying the boycotter than changing the behavior of the boycotted. Accordingly, the Obama Administration switched tack. In keeping with the new spirit of multilateralism, the United States was elected to the Council in May 2010. Announcing the U.S. intention to seek a seat, Ambassador Susan Rice declared, "[W]e believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights."

The time has come to put that belief to the test. As the world prepares to mark the first anniversary of Iran's stolen election, and the beatings, arbitrary arrests, torture and executions which accompanied that theft, the U.S. should be pushing the Human Rights Council to end its silence on Iran. For in the twelve months that have elapsed since Iranians took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands, there hasn't even been a special session of the Council, much less a resolution condemning the Tehran regime. As for an "independent fact-finding mission," that proposition seems almost outlandish.

Going forward, the portents are hardly encouraging. The Iranian regime summarily dumped the modest, politely-phrased recommendations of the Council's Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism which enables the examination of the human rights records of all 192 UN member states, prompting my colleague Hillel Neuer to ask, in remarks submitted to the Council in Geneva today, why the mullahs, if they had nothing to hide, were refusing scrutiny on everything from torture to the persecution of gay men?

If the Human Rights Council is such a write-off, why is AJC urging it to end its silence on the post-election repression in Iran? To begin with, our appeal is addressed not to the Council itself, but to the one member state that has explicitly pledged to reform it: the United States. And nor is the United States alone in seeking a Human Rights Council that does what it is supposed to do. As well as members of the European Union, the Council also contains certain Asian and African states who understand that the cause of human rights must be placed right under the noses of the most egregious abusers of those rights. So, for now, let us keep the multilateral spirit alive. If the Council fails on Iran, then it can be reasonably deposited in history's dustbin.