Hill Hears Human Rights Commission Excuses and Complaints

Putting a bizarre spin on an international embarrassment, a State Department official told Capitol Hill lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday that the United States may have been tossed off the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights last month in part because some supporters believed the U.S. was certain to earn a spot on the commission — and so they didn't bother to cast their votes for the United States.

The U.S. had received 44 guarantees of support, 35 of them in writing.  And yet the U.S. received only 29 votes.  William Wood, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, admitted that the loss came as a shock.

"Although not all members of the European Union used all of their votes for other European Union members, some and perhaps many did. Some may even have assumed our re-election was a foregone conclusion and therefore that they didn't need to vote for us," Wood said.

The loss of a seat on the commission was a particular embarrassment for the United States, which had been a member since 1947. The United States was one of four candidates vying for three seats assigned to Western European and North American nations.

The commission is a 53-member body elected through secret ballot by the Economic and Social Council, a 54-member group that includes perennial human rights violators such as Cuba, China, Libya, and the Sudan.

Wood offered other possible explanations for the loss. He suggested that allies to Cuba and China campaigned against the United States; some nations retaliated against the United States to protest its not paying nearly $600 million in back dues to the international body; and many nations were angered by the United States "principled positions" on issues relating to the international criminal court, the environment, and economic, political and social rights.

"When you take tough positions, you get a reaction," Wood said.

Former U.N. Ambassador Infuriated

The explanations were cold comfort to former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who testified that a human rights commission comprised of human rights violators will eventually dismantle all the achievements made to date.

"Virtually all the dictatorships in the world will be participating in the human rights commission next year doing all the sort of things that dictatorships do — repressing others; jailing them; denying them free speech, press, and assembly; trying to bar them from taking part in commission activities," she said. "They will seek to revise the rules on accreditation to the commission, making it impossible for victims of repression to speak to the human rights commission and to circulate 'politically-motivated material' describing their treatment."

Kirkpatrick cited the example of Freedom House, a Washington-based non-governmental organization that documents human rights abuses in many nations. Kirkpatrick, a board member, said China is trying to discredit Freedom House. Cuba and Sudan are also trying to strip it of its U.N. accreditation.

Outrage on the Hill

Many congressmen, particularly some who have long fought to expand human rights internationally, expressed amazement at the outcome.

"The United Nations' Human Rights Commission is increasingly being populated with the most appalling, most disgusting, most persistent violators of human rights," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a Holocaust survivor who moved to the United States from Budapest, Hungary, after World War II. "We clearly and inexorably are moving in the direction, with the growing sophistication of these assorted dictatorships, that the U.N. Human Rights Commission might in fact make itself a meaningless entity and our presence on it, or our failure to participate in it, might make very little difference."

Fallout Continues

Following last month's ouster from the commission, Congress voted 252-165 to withhold $244 million in back dues owed this year if the United States is not returned to the commission next year.

That vote was opposed by the Bush administration as counterproductive. "Let's not be too irate so that we start to take actions in the heat of the moment that we regret in six to eight months," Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a House Budget Committee hearing last month.

Powell's position was reiterated by administration officials Wednesday. "We will pursue our human rights policy regardless of whether we are on the commission or not. Those laggards who rejoice in our removal will learn that we will be no less vigorous in our pursuit of this nation's human rights principles than we were even in the past," said Michael Parmly, deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.