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The United States and the U.N. Human Rights Council: An Early Assessment

By Rosa Freedman - Queen Mary, University of London

The United States’ election to the U.N. Human Rights Council (“Council”) in 2009 displays a shift in foreign policy under President Barack Obama.  The Obama administration’s decision to engage with the Council by seeking membership, for the first time since the Council’s creation, reverses the approach taken under George W. Bush.  During General Assembly discussions aimed at establishing the Council in 2005–06, the Bush administration had objected to key provisions.  The United States argued that the proposed Council would fail to overcome the shortcomings of the Human Rights Commission (“HRC”), the Council’s predecessor.

When the Council was established in 2006, the United States did not stand for election to one of the body’s 47 seats.  It instead opted for permanent observer status, which entitles a state to participate in all sessions.  In 2008, the United States withdrew its mission, disenchanted by the tone and progress of Council proceedings.  Despite widespread hope that the Obama administration will revitalize America’s relationship with the U.N., the 2008 withdrawal is no aberration.  It remains a pivotal action in United States policy towards the U.N., as Bush era policies have not been altogether abandoned.

In this article, an analysis of events leading up to the 2008 withdrawal will shed light not only upon America’s likely positions in the years to come, but, more importantly, on the overall performance of the Council since its creation.  Two broad factors are relevant to the United States withdrawal.  First, I shall examine America’s historical stance towards the Council, tracing its positions before, during, and after the General Assembly vote on the Council’s establishment.  Second, I shall turn to the Council’s scrutiny of human rights in the United States and the American response.

Although recent United States policy has done much to inflame international relations, I shall argue that the Council’s “Special Procedures” mandate holders9 drew excessive attention to the United States, often to the neglect of far more serious human rights situations elsewhere in the world. After examining those two factors, I shall conclude with preliminary prognoses of America’s new membership under the Obama administration.

23 St. Thomas L. Rev. 89


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