Was it wise for the Obama administration to reverse the Bush administration’s policy of distancing the U.S. from the United Nations Human Rights Council? With the Council’s 15th session underway, it’s a question worth asking.

The Council has been receiving more attention than unusual lately because the administration recently submitted a report on the U.S. human rights record for the Council’s Universal Periodic Review process. The report has led many to question what America gets out of membership on that body.

In response, the U.S. ambassador to the Council, Eileen Donahoe, penned a piece in The New York Times filled with evasions, non sequiturs and platitudes. Donahoe lists a series of “accomplishments” supposedly wrought by U.S. membership on the Council. Among them:

  • “In the past year, the United States has spoken out on serious human rights abuses in Iran, Burma, Sudan, China, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Syria, Russia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere.”

But the U.S. can speak on any issue before the Council even if it is not a seated member. Any U.N. member state can. Speaking as a Council member carries no more weight than the U.S. would in speaking as a non-member.

  • “With active U.S. leadership, the council authorized international mandates to closely monitor and address the human rights situations in Burma, North Korea, Cambodia and Sudan.”

These mandates were “reauthorized,” not “authorized.” In the world of the Human Rights Council, that is not nitpicking as continuing a current practice is far easier than initiating a new one. If the U.S. wanted to flex the human rights muscles gained through Council membership, it would secure mandates investigating human rights practices in Cuba, China,  Zimbabwe, Iran, or many other tough cases. It hasn’t and is not in a position to do so despite “engaging” the Council.

This is not an issue of U.S. leadership, but rather the Council’s lack of seriousness about human rights situations in the world’s brutal regimes and vulnerability to manipulation by those regimes. For instance, the U.S. was unable to get a Council resolution condemning Iran. The world had to settle for this instead:

  • “In June, the United States co-led a cross-regional effort with 55 other nations to criticize the deplorable human rights situation in Iran and to express solidarity with victims and human rights defenders on the anniversary of the contested Iranian election.”

The criticism, though much deserved, is far short of a resolution condemning Iran. The Council has never adopted any resolution critical of Iran. Neither has it created a mandate or special rapporteur to investigate Iran’s deplorable human rights record. Repressive regimes work together, nearly always successfully, to prevent such actions by the Council.

  • “Very importantly, we have vigorously and unequivocally protested the politicized efforts of some members to continually target Israel while ignoring serious problems in their own countries.”

Ambassador Donahoe has not been successful in preventing this, however. The Council continues to create and support investigations of Israel for the offenses of defending itself against Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians and sea-borne invasions by “humanitarian” flotillas.

  • “Along with our international partners and the NGO community, the United States has brought a new tone of constructive engagement to the council.”

This is pure hokum. The nations that sit on the Council and in the Council chamber are there to advance their political agendas (e.g., demonizing Israel) and to protect their often deplorable human rights records. Whether they are doing so more politely since President Obama decided to join the Council is immaterial and laughable.

  • “Fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of religion, women’s rights and protections for human rights defenders form the core of our agenda. We have worked actively to initiate positive dialogue and bridge ideological and regional divides, all while steadfastly guarding and championing fundamental freedoms.”

The resolution on freedom of expression that the U.S. co-sponsored with Egypt last year was a step backwards from the proper understanding of the freedom of expression. Efforts continue at the Council to support a “defamation of religions” resolution that would infringe on all of those rights.

  • “Additionally, through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism, which requires self-examination and public presentation of each country’s human rights record, we have stood with our partners to condemn some of the world’s worst human rights violators.”

Nonetheless, the UPR reports by countries continue to be adopted without any serious question. Blatant lies by Iran, China, Cuba, North Korea and others are accepted at face value by the Council. Resolutions accepting their farcical UPR reports pass without issue. No substantive advancement of human rights can be attributed to the process. Moreover, through its report the administration invited the Council to pass judgment over outstanding, unresolved legal disputes in the U.S. such as the Arizona immigration debate.

Donahoe’s main point boils down to this:

  • “Some erroneously argue that the council’s failings prove the task is too difficult, that it is a waste of time and resources, and we should pack up and go home. This perspective reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of our role and belies a lack of confidence in the power of U.S. leadership.

Now, more than ever, as it engages in a full review of its practices, the council needs robust U.S. participation. The United States should never relinquish authority on human rights, especially in an international forum.”

Nonsense. It is not a lack of confidence in U.S. power that leads to this conclusion; it is recognition of a rigged game. The design of the Human Rights Council enables human rights abusers to win seats on the Council and use their position to avoid serious scrutiny and counter the very purpose of the Council – to promote and protect fundamental human rights. The U.S. cannot change this through membership alone. Substantial changes to impose standards for Council membership are needed.

We agree that the U.S. should never relinquish its authority on human rights. Unfortunately, U.S. membership on the Council does just that, because it extends U.S. credibility and legitimacy to a body that does not deserve it.

Co-authored by Steven Groves.