Americans are furious after the US was expelled from the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) earlier this month. The result of the vote on May 3 came as a shock to an superpower which had taken it for granted that its customs and traditions are the laws of nature. “What America says, goes,” has been a frequently-heard refrain in Washington during the last decade. So why was America rejected when it has been a member of the UNHRC since it was founded in 1947?
Singapore’s ambassador to the UN, Kishore Mahbubani, attributed it to Washington’s lack of lobbying; others see it differently. The vote was by secret ballot, so for once, weaker members of the 53-member body could vote against the US without fearing the consequences. What is more, it was not only “third world” countries that voted against the US, but also its European allies, fed up of its over-bearing arrogance over issues such asits refusal to pay UN dues, its blind support for Israeli crimes against Palestinians, and its rejection of the Kyoto pact and the anti-ballistic missile treaty (1972).
Four countries were competing to fill three western vacancies for three-year terms on the 53-member commission: France, Austria, Sweden and the US. When the secretly-cast ballots were counted, France had 52 votes, Austria got 41 and Sweden 32. The US trailed with 29 and was eliminated. The blow is especially hard because countries routinely accused by the US of human-rights abuses were elected: Sudan, Pakistan, Bahrain, Korea, Croatia, Armenia, Chile, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Togo and Uganda.
One third of the seats on the commission — which meets annually to survey human-rights practices, pass resolutions critical of abusers, and assign monitors — are open to election every year. The UN body has routinely been used by the US to attack its enemies, notably Sudan, China and Iran. Washington could not hide its anger at Sudan’s inclusion when the US was excluded.
Madeleine Albright, who was America’s ambassador to the UN before becoming secretary of state, said in an interview that it was “beyond belief” that at the end of the day Sudan was a member of the commission but the US was not. Albright had clearly forgotten that in August 1998 she and Sandy Berger, then national security adviser to Bill Clinton, had spent hours in front of television-cameras telling lies to justify the US attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum. The US alleged that the factory was producing products for chemical weapons. The US had no right to launch cruise missiles and destroy it; that America’s allegations were also completely false made it worse. Americans may believe that they can murder people and forget about it, but other people do not have such short memories.
“It’s an unequivocally devastating blow [rejection of US application for UNHRC membership],” said William H Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the US, the largest American support-group for the organization. He said he feared the effect on a congress with many critics of the organization. “It couldn’t be worse,” he said. “All the conservatives in the administration will see this as proof that we are in an organization full of enemies.” Has Luers ever wondered why so many countries in the world might regard the US as their enemy?
While it was not unexpected that American politicians would be upset by the snub, what should one make of the reaction of western human-rights organizations? Take the case of Amnesty International, for instance. Its American branch alleged that the US’s expulsion from the commission was “part of an effort by nations that routinely violate human rights to escape scrutiny.” Amnesty accused members of the commission of failing to do their job, succumbing instead to political and economic pressures. Does Amnesty really believe this? Has it never questioned America’s constant manipulation of the UN security council to water down anti-Israeli resolutions, and its repeated use of its veto to block them if they do not meet with Uncle Sam’s and Israel’s approval? Is Amnesty International really unaware of Israeli crimes against humanity?
“The US was among the few nations willing to actively push for condemnation at the UNHRC of the brutal human rights violations committed by nations like China,” Amnesty’s America branch said. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, was little better. Joanna Weschler, the group’s representative at the UN, said that the commission was becoming “a rogues’ gallery of human rights abusers.” But she added: “It wasn’t just enemies. It was friends as well who voted the US out of the commission.”