Keeping the Human Rights Council Tyrant-free

The U.S. can, has, and should continue to proactively engage other HRC members to suspend particularly egregious rights violators who find their way on the council.

Elections for the United Nations Human Rights Council are just two months away, and a heated debate has already begun over the efforts of some significant human rights violators to secure seats. However, while some critics might call for the United States to retreat from the body, it should instead maintain its current bid for a second term on the Council.

Since the United States joined the HRC in 2009, the 47-member body has made remarkable progress: from the establishment of country-specific mandates in places like Iran and Belarus, to rapid-response initiatives in Libya and Syria, to - in the last two years alone - breaking new ground in Internet freedom and LGBT rights. Nevertheless, some in Congress have continually introduced legislation that would either restrict or place conditions on American participation in the Council. Their argument tends to be that the Council is little more than a dictators' club and hopelessly biased against Israel.

While the HRC is by no means a perfect institution, the most effective way to deal with such concerns is to consider strategies for further and deeper U.S. engagement - not the opposite.

What can be done to ensure that the HRC continues not only to advance critical human rights issues around the globe but also refrains from tired and wasteful Israel-bashing? The United States should consider five pragmatic strategies.

• Diplomacy: Intense public and private diplomacy has proven a powerful tool in encouraging some of the most serious human rights violators to "reconsider" running for HRC membership. For example, The United States and its friends and allies at the UN successfully forced Iran, a chronic voice against Israel, to change course just days before an HRC election in 2010. The same thing occurred with Syria's (failed ) attempt to join the council in 2011.

In short, it seems even tyrannical regimes are worried about looking like losers. The United States and like-minded countries should meticulously track what particular carrots and sticks have worked in the past and, if necessary, be prepared to apply them again.

• Reach out to management: The power of the UN secretary-general to draw attention to major human rights violators and speak above the political fray should not be underestimated. For example, when a secretary-general declares a government has "lost its fundamental humanity," as Ban Ki-moon has done with Syria, it becomes extremely difficult for such regimes to dismiss allegations of extreme human rights abuses as mere conspiracies or outright lies. The assistance of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as relevant civil society stakeholders should be sought to reinforce and amplify the message of the secretary-general.

• Face the facts: Although complaints about the membership of the HRC are a frequent theme of opponents of U.S. engagement, they are not accurate. In 2011, a large majority of the council's membership - 39 out of 47 countries (83 percent) - participated in the self-selecting Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental group of democratic states. In addition, in 2011, only four of the council's 47 members - China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Libya - fell into the categories that would prevent their inclusion on the council, according to criteria enumerated in one piece of HRC-related legislation from the U.S. House of Representatives. And one of those countries - Libya - was suspended from membership when Security Council sanctions were imposed in 2011. Information such as this should be highlighted so that it can be broadly understood by the public, as well as by leaders in Washington.

• Pursue election reform: As far as the HRC's composition, each world region has a predetermined number of guaranteed seats. In what has been a common practice during HRC elections, regional groups tend to coordinate to submit clean electoral slates - meaning there are exactly as many countries running for membership as there are available seats. As a result, there is little wiggle room for the 193 members of the UN General Assembly, the body that elects countries to the HRC, to opt for other candidates.

Advocating more competitive elections whereby regional groups advance more candidates than available slots - which the U.S. ambassador for UN management and reform has supported - would not only help preclude rights violators from being protected by the slate system, it would also increase the council's overall democratic accountability. In fact, many credit Kenya's recent decision to join what was originally a clean African regional group slate as the key factor in forcing Sudan - whose leadership has been indicted by the International Criminal Court - to withdraw its 2012 bid for council membership.

• Have a back-up plan: In 2011, the HRC voted to recommend that the UN General Assembly suspend Libya's HRC membership. Afterward, the assembly voted - by consensus - to formally suspend Libya, and an important diplomatic precedent was created. The lesson? The United States can, has, and should continue to proactively engage other HRC members to suspend particularly egregious rights violators who find their way on the council.

In short, there's little reason for the United States to cut and run anytime a despotic regime goes for a seat on the HRC. On the contrary, such cases demand the exercise of leadership to ensure the council can sustain and build upon its recent momentum regarding the promotion and protection of universal human rights.

Ryan Kaminski is the Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow of the United Nations Association of the U.S.A.