U.S. Seen as Failing to Engage in U.N. Process

Times Staff Writer

After being on the losing end of a 170-4 vote on the creation of a U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.S. is being criticized by many diplomats and human rights representatives here as having never fully engaged in negotiations over the matter and being unwilling to compromise.

Some diplomats said that if U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton had spent as much time lobbying at the United Nations as he did in Washington, the U.S. would have had a better result.

Bolton and other U.S. officials disagreed, saying they talked but that others didn’t listen, and insisting they were right in trying to hold out for a better plan.

“We would rather have nothing than something that falls short of our standards. That was our view all along,” Bolton said Thursday, a day after the lopsided tally in which the U.S. found itself with Palau, the Marshall Islands and Israel.


“What we found sad was that some of our central allies gave up on key points,” he said.

The outcome seems to be a result of mixed messages and mutual miscalculation. But it was rooted in the United States’ ambivalence about how deeply to engage at the United Nations on certain issues.

“It is not clear whether or not they wanted the council to succeed, but it is clear that they were ineffective,” said Lawrence Moss, the special counsel for U.N. reform for Human Rights Watch. “The Bush administration was divided about the proposed human rights council, and that was reflected in the way they negotiated. They could have been much more focused and joined with others in Europe and Latin America to press for their goals.”

The drive for a new human rights body began last fall after world leaders agreed at a U.N. summit to replace the Human Rights Commission, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented was being used to protect violators from censure more than safeguarding human rights.


There should be no place for human rights violators on the new council, Annan said.

In the past, countries with poor human rights records such as Sudan, Libya and Zimbabwe had been able to gain seats, and the commission could not pass a resolution condemning Sudan in 2004 even after the United States had called the systematic massacres in Darfur genocide.

However, the majority of the General Assembly members, many from Africa and Asia, feared that the new council would be dominated by wealthy countries and be used against them.

When negotiations began in late October, the U.S. insisted that human rights violators be kept off the new council, and that the panel be able to take effective action against abusers.


“Their bottom lines were not unreasonable,” said one of the chairs of the preparatory meetings. “But their inflexibility was. If one formula does not work, if you’re serious, you should work to come up with another one. For the most part, they did not do that.”

In the end, members who feared they could not win a vote for the stipulation of two-thirds support agreed that candidates for the council would have to win a majority, or 96 votes, in a direct election in the General Assembly. In addition, each member’s human rights record would be reviewed from time to time, and a systematic violator could be suspended from the council by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

Critics said that instead of negotiating at meetings, the U.S. kept repeating its position. Bolton did not appear at most of the formal sessions, which other ambassadors who did show up took to mean that Washington was not taking the process seriously, diplomats said.

In addition, they said that U.S. negotiators privately acknowledged that the two-thirds support standard could even be used to keep the U.S. off the council at a time when the United States is under scrutiny for its treatment of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


“Other countries engaged more in the process than the United States did,” said Ricardo A. Arias, the Panamanian envoy who was one of the chairmen, known in U.N. parlance as “facilitators.”

“I cannot say they were not negotiating constructively,” he said, “but they were firm in their position all through the process.”

Bolton said that his deputy, Alex Wolff, and other U.S. mission staffers attended the meetings and represented the United States well.

The negotiations stalled, and on Feb. 1, under pressure to deliver a new council before the existing commission convened in early March, the president of the General Assembly and two facilitators sounded out countries to find a middle ground.


On Feb. 27, after many revisions and dozens of meetings, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson presented the final proposal. Bolton immediately denounced it because it did not contain the U.S. demands and called for negotiations to reopen.

“It’s not clear that they wanted to move,” said a diplomat closely involved in the talks. “We offered ideas to Washington to achieve their goals, and nothing happened.”

If Bolton was not making his message clear at the U.N., it was certainly clear in Washington. The ambassador spent every Friday there, briefing members of Congress and meeting with government officials.

His press secretary, Ric Grenell, arranged calls and meetings with about 70 editorial page editors. In one editorial, the New York Times wrote, “John Bolton is right; Secretary-General Kofi Annan is wrong.”


“We would show up at the facilitator meetings, present our case and be ignored. When the U.S. is ignored, ignored, ignored, they can’t complain when we have to go public to present our case,” Grenell said.

Eliasson went ahead and scheduled a meeting Wednesday to adopt the proposal.

After the nearly unanimous vote, even the traditionally toughest critics, the human rights groups, praised the result. It may not have had the two-thirds threshold for membership that they were pushing for, but it had other measures to keep the worst violators off the council.

Bolton said the U.N. had missed a historic opportunity to help people who were most in need. But he did not carry through on a threat to block funding for the new body.


“It is encouraging to hear that despite voting against the resolution, the U.S. government will cooperate with the council and support it,” said Yvonne Terlingen of Amnesty International. “Now the test is for the U.S. and other countries to join forces to make it work.”