When rolling out the State Department's new report on human rights Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the opportunity to announce that, for the first time, the United States this year will submit itself to a process in which America's record might be judged by some of the world's worst human rights abusers.
"Human rights are universal, but their experience is local. This is why we are committed to holding everyone to the same standard, including ourselves," Clinton said, referring to America's participation this fall in what's called the "universal periodic review" (UPR) process, run by the U.N.'s controversial Human Rights Council.
Critics say the 47-member council, which was established in March 2006 to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, has been hijacked since its inception by notorious human rights violators such as Cuba, China, and Egypt. George W. Bush's administration refused to join, citing the council's nondemocratic makeup and its frequent criticisms of Israel, but the Obama administration reversed that decision last spring.
All 192 U.N. countries are supposed to go through the UPR process every four years, but the United States is now committed to the council and cannot easily dismiss its findings out of hand. Former Bush administration officials fear that by participating fully in the review, the Obama team is simply giving human rights abusers the perfect chance to justify their own atrocities.
Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, defended U.S. participation in the review and the council in an interview with The Cable.
"It's our turn," Posner explained. "The good thing about it that every country is compelled to do it. We're going to do a good job of it. We want to lead by example."
Participating in the review will give America more credibility to go after other countries on human rights, Posner argued, assuming the U.S. government takes it seriously and defends its record ably.
"My goal is to be able to complete the [UPR] report and after that come out even more aggressive on countries like Cuba, North Korea, Burma, and Russia," Posner said. "We'll be in a stronger position if we do a good report and we will."
Here's how it all works. First, the U.S. side will spend months compiling a detailed report to submit to the council about how the country is meeting its international commitments on human rights. ("We're in the middle of doing consultations with human rights, civil rights groups around the country," Posner explained in a March 2 press briefing.) The State Department will be open to public input until April 30, and then finalize its submission of no more than 20 pages. Then, at some point this summer, lots will be drawn to choose three countries to serve as a panel to review the U.S. submission. That panel is called the "troika."
Kristen Silverberg, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in the Bush administration from 2005 to 2008, warned that the U.S. record on human rights could quickly become politicized, especially because the troika's mission will be to find something to criticize.
"Countries like Burma and Iran will then use that criticism to justify their own atrocious human rights records," she said.
The review is slated to take place in the fall. As part of the process, each member of the council will have the chance to ask the United States questions about its human rights record. But the order of who gets to ask questions is based on who physically gets in line to sign up for the opportunity first.
In the past, worst-offending countries have gotten in line early, sometimes even the night before, in order to be first to ask questions and then drain the clock by lobbing softballs to other countries with which they have friendly relations.
"Countries that deserved a lot of scrutiny were getting bouquets thrown at them by friendly countries. It was ridiculous," said Posner. The American team recently has begun sending a representative to stand in the line overnight, he added.
The Obama administration is well meaning in its attempts to engage the council and that may yield public relations benefit, said David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor toward the end of the Bush administration. But ultimately, those benefits are immeasurable and U.S. attempts to reform the council are likely to fall flat, he predicted.
"At the end of the day they may wind where we were at the end of the Bush administration, which was very frustrated," he said. Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice initially allowed the U.S. government to participate in the council as an observer, but later decided to withdraw altogether. Her spokesman, Sean McCormack, said in June 2008 that the council had a "pathetic record" in fulfilling its mission.Kramer told The Cable that Rice's decision "was based largely on the feeling that it was a bit of a joke. It was a feckless organization that it was not worth the time or effort to try to improve it ... made up of countries that have no business telling other countries about human rights."