Text size

As the UN General Assembly convenes for its 66th session this week in New York, it has at least one thing to celebrate. Namely, its 2006 decision to replace the hapless UN Commission on Human Rights with the UN Human Rights Council. Despite some notable exceptions, the UNHRC has shown remarkable progress in its five-year existence, and should be afforded more time to continue its institutional development, implement its mandate and pursue targeted reform.

During its relatively limited tenure, the UNHRC has broken ground in a variety of areas. This includes passing an unprecedented resolution on preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, suspending a former member - Libya - for its human rights record, and condemning the recent crackdown in Syria.

Regardless of all of this, disapproval of the UNHRC dies hard in the United States.

During its inception, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton called the UNHRC a "caterpillar in lipstick." Two weeks ago, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, introduced legislation that if enacted would effectively ban the United States from participating in the UNHRC and eliminate its funding.

Time and time again, however, criticism of the new UN human rights organ has been, at best, half-baked. For example, the UNHRC is routinely chastised for including states from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which either have troubling human rights records or cultural beliefs significantly at odds with those of the West. But rarely do people consider what legitimacy a human rights group restricted to a coterie of Western states that condemn other countries' rights records could really expect to have.

Furthermore, frequent claims that the UNHRC is as toothless as the defunct Commission on Human Rights are both wrong and unfair. First, it is equipped with new mechanisms like limitations on the terms served by members, and the Universal Periodic Review, which assesses the human rights records of all UN member states every four years.

Additionally, the UNHRC is simply not the same as powerhouses like the UN Security Council, and must work within a restricted mandate. Of course, if the UNHRC's loudest critics are ever asked if the body's powers should be augmented, they would say "no," citing largely unwarranted concerns that U.S. sovereignty could be endangered.

Next, the UNHRC is continuously derided for its apparent hypocrisy. Most recently, this has included controversy over a resolution it passed on the elimination of all forms of intolerance against religion, a problematic move for freedom-of-expression advocates everywhere. On the other hand, the complicated and often completely contradictory human rights stances the U.S. employs as a part of its own foreign policy are commonly defended by the same critics as both inevitable and "pragmatic."

Regardless of these attacks, the UNHRC admittedly has much work to do before it can be considered a genuinely effective human rights body. In order to both maintain and build upon its historic work, it must do three things:

• First, get off Israel's back. The UNHRC has taken an obsessive approach to Israel bashing, placing the country on its permanent agenda. True, there are a number of rights issues associated with Israel that warrant ongoing investigation and concern, but the UNHRC can ill afford to sustain its fixation on that state while ignoring human rights black holes in places like North Korea and Zimbabwe.

• Second, follow up. There are number of matters the UNHRC needs to revisit, discuss, and ultimately act upon, including evaluating the investigation it recently sanctioned regarding Syria. It would also be a good idea to carefully monitor the ongoing turmoil between Sudan and the world's newest country, South Sudan.

• Third, and most importantly, the UNHRC must take maximum advantage of an upcoming window of opportunity regarding the composition of its membership. In contrast to its defunct predecessor, the mandate of the UNHRC strictly limits its member states to two consecutive terms. That means after their terms expire in 2012, influential two-term UNHRC members with less than stellar human rights records - including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba - will have to wait for another election cycle before running again for a seat.

Everything won't be lovey-dovey even with these countries on the sidelines, but such a scenario certainly presents an opportune moment for the 47 members of the UNHRC to work in concert to improve the committee's record and further expand its agenda.

None of this is likely if the United States suddenly withdraws its political and diplomatic support for the UNHRC. Losing a large portion of its funding probably won't help much either.

If not a lipstick-wearing caterpillar, is the UNHRC a butterfly? Not even close. Still, the latest UN General Assembly session calls for cautious optimism instead of unfettered cynicism.

Ryan Kaminski is research associate for the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.