Below is a post from AID leader Zeeshan Suhail… it was originally published in a column he writes for a Pakistani newspaper:

New York Diary : The rights of the self-righteous


Last week was apparently a very ordinary week in the life of the United Nations (UN). Resolutions were being passed, debates being held over issues of global importance and diplomats communicating back and forth with their superiors in their respective countries. But the most amazing phenomenon was taking place in the US itself, where the champion of human rights and the custodian of democratic traditions shied away from playing a role that was expected of it in the international arena. The US first voted against a UN resolution that called for the establishment of the new Human Rights Council, in virtual isolation in the world body, and then announced that it would not contest elections for the membership of that Council. Old habits die hard.The newly established Human Rights Council will consist of 47 members and will make efforts to ensure global representation by allocating a certain number of seats to different regions of the world. Africa and Asia get 13 seats each, Latin America and the Caribbean get eight, Western nations get seven and Europe gets six. As soon as applications for membership were announced, several countries, including Pakistan, made official statements regarding their candidacy for positions. The enthusiasm for the membership of such a coveted body is understandable.

Unfortunately, the US went a step further and not only declined a leadership role, but also decided on not applying for membership. The announcement didn’t really come as a shock to many international affairs experts. Refusing to sign or ratify important documents has been a hallmark of US diplomacy. The most disappointing aspect of this scenario, though, is that the US will still continue to bully and harass this infant organization without providing the guidance and assistance that is so crucial at this point in its history. Instead of becoming a member of the Human Rights Council and playing a positive role in addressing human rights problems in the world today, the US chose to turn its back on the community and wait and see how the Council spent its first year. There were different viewpoints on the issue of the US involvement in the Council. Some politicians like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, vehemently opposed the US participation in the Council and termed it “destined to fail”. He also asserted that “any US participation or financial support of the Council undermines our credibility as defenders of human rights around the world.” Wow. That is all that one could say.

On the flip side, many others supported the US affiliation with the Council, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana. He maintained, “The US must remain engaged in the debate given the US history of support for human rights, and I urge the administration, having now voiced its frustration with the Council, to get on with the job of promoting human rights – a job that can best be achieved by seeking election to the new Council.” So much for Lugar’s hopes of seeing the US actively involved.

Voicing his disappointment at the US’s decision to not seek Council membership, Ambassador Bill Leurs, the President of the New York City-based United Nations Association of the USA stated, “This short-sighted decision contradicts the US government’s previously stated position that it ‘will work cooperatively with other member states to make the council as strong and effective as it can be.’ We are hard pressed to see how this can be achieved when the US has effectively given up its seat at the table.”

Ambassador Tim Wirth, President of the Washington, D.C.-based United Nations Foundation presented his comments, which are equally thought-provoking. “The notion that America can improve the new Council by refusing to participate in it contradicts both common sense and history. To many, today’s decision will be interpreted as a signal of US withdrawal from organized efforts by the international community to promote human rights. Engagement, not retreat, from international deliberations on human rights is the way to advance human dignity and stop oppression around the world.” One couldn’t have said it better.

My own views will probably come off as controversial, but then again, so is the US’s human rights record. From the outset, I was opposed to the US participation in the Council because of its blatant human rights violations all over the world, particularly at Guantanamo Bay and the prisons it operates internationally. How could a country lead or even participate in a forum where human rights were discussed, when its own record was so blotched and tarnished? My conscience didn’t permit that the US have a voice, let alone leadership role, in an august assemblage of states like that of the Council.

This is a turning point in history that we are all witnessing — a time when the US has rationally decided not to have a voice in human rights discussions in a global arena. It is also a time when the US must decide how it will deal with its own policies, which are now increasingly being labelled as hypocritical. It might be the big kid on the block, but it isn’t the only kid on the block where the will of the international community ought to be accepted. This realization will take a while to settle in, but the faster the US understands this, the better off it will be in the future.

The writer is pursuing a Masters degree in International Relations at the City University of New York