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Washington reconsiders the UN Human Rights Council

After years of dismissing the body as anti-American, Obama seeks to reengage.

Manouchehr Mottaki, minister of foreign affairs of Iran, addresses the 10th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, March 2, 2009. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

GENEVA — The Obama administration seems to be in the mood to start over with the U.N.’s Human Right Council after many years in which Washington viewed the forum as hopelessly  anti-American and anti-Israeli.

Esther Brimmer, President Barack Obama’s new assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said in a briefing for reporters here that the administration was placing heavy emphasis on the fact that the United States plans to try to regain its seat on the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already announced at the end of March that the U.S. would try to rejoin the council, but Brimmer’s two-day trip to Geneva, coming only a few weeks after being confirmed in her post on April 2, adds a new sense of urgency.  

Elections to the council are scheduled to be held in New York on May 12.

The U.S. had distanced itself from the Human Rights Council under former President George W. Bush, partly because a number of members were known for particularly egregious human rights abuses, and also because a strong contingent had virulently attacked Israel in a tone that reeked of anti-Semitism.  

At a recent U.N. conference on racism here, a featured speaker, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, launched yet another vitriolic attack against both Israel and the United States. More than a few critics pointed out that Iran, which apparently feels comfortable stoning women to death for the crime of adultery or putting writers in prison for expressing what the regime considers to be impolitic ideas, is hardly in a position to lecture anyone concerning human rights.

Some of the other members of the council have equally shaky records on human rights, but it was also becoming obvious that by boycotting the Human Rights Council, the United States had simply allowed a number of unsavory actors to steal the show.

Speaking to reporters here, Brimmer said that the U.S. had made a major effort to attend the anti-racism conference, and had sent a high-level delegation to talk with more than 30 delegates here in Geneva, but had decided in the end that it was too late in the game to change the agenda and that to attend would be counterproductive.

“The administration is committed to seeing how we can address racism issues,” she said.
Privately, diplomats suggested that the mistake had been not to be present at the planning on the Human Rights Council three years earlier when the U.S. might have been able to influence the process.

Brimmer plans to talk to a variety of U.N. agencies. She is meeting with officials at the World Health Organization, where the Mexican swine flu will be a major topic, and with the World Meteorological Organization, which is focused on climate change. A meeting with the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees is also planned. But it is her meeting with the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights that is likely to be the most politically sensitive.

The reason is that a U.N. team, headed by South African judge and former war-crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, is preparing to head off to Israel and Gaza for a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of war crimes by Israeli troops. Goldstone, who began a week of planning meetings in Geneva on Monday, is a respected personality, and depending on how he handles the mission, it could either dampen or further inflame an already tense situation.