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US bids for seat

April 2, 2009

US President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that the United States will join the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body that was derided by his predecessor as overly politicized and ineffective.

Graphic showing President Barack Obama, a US flag and Guantanamo Bay
President Obama wants to distance the US from his predecessor's recordImage: AP/DW

As the latest step in Obama’s "new era of engagement" with the global community, the move to run for a three-year term on the 47-member council at the next elections in May signals another major change in direction for the US under its new commander-in-chief.

The Bush administration refused to join the Geneva-based body out of protest that authoritarian states with poor human rights records were also allowed to become members, despite being the key driver behind the council's formation to replace its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission.

But Washington refused to back the 2006 final agreement that created the new council because it claimed the body still lacked stringent criteria for membership and had lost credibility because of its repeated criticism of Israel. The White House also maintained that the council failed to confront major rights abusers within its ranks, such as Libya, Iran and Cuba.

But critics said the United States, during Bush's term in office, had itself lost credibility on human rights over the alleged torture of terrorism suspects in the US detention centers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Iraq, as well as in secret CIA prisons in proxy nations. The international community had largely charged that the Bush administration acted on its own and even illegally in these and other cases.

On the surface at least, Obama’s commitment to reversing one of Bush’s more controversial decisions shows that the new president is making good on his promise to return the US to the global fold and the rule of international law.

Understandably, considering the criticism his predecessor generated on the topic of human rights, Obama's decision has been widely welcomed.

US involvement seen as a positive boost

Ban Ki Moon
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has welcomed the moveImage: AP

"Full US engagement on human rights issues is an important step toward realizing the goal of an inclusive and vibrant intergovernmental process to protect human rights around the globe," UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in a statement hailing the new administration's decision.

The international rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the move a step toward more engaged and effective US leadership on human rights.

"Active involvement by the US will bring new energy and focus to the Human Rights Council's deliberations and actions, helping it become a more credible force for human rights promotion," said HRW executive director Kenneth Roth. "We hope this marks the start of a new era of US engagement and leadership on behalf of human rights."

"We of course welcome the decision of the United States to re-engage in the process and promotion of international human rights," Peter Splinter, Amnesty International's representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, told Deutsche Welle. "While we can't speculate, we hope that this is the first step in a much larger process which will see the US sign up to the Statute of Rome (the treaty that established the International Criminal Court)."

Amnesty refutes claims of US agenda

Flags of the UN Human Rights Council
The US is unlikely to use the council for its own means, says AmnestyImage: AP

While some critics may speculate that the US move comes with an agenda, and that it can only control the council from within, Splinter refutes claims that Washington would attempt to ride roughshod over the council in a way some accuse it of doing at the UN General Assembly.

"The US cannot determine what the council does on its own and could not change the dynamic of the council to achieve its own agenda," Splinter said. "I do believe that the involvement of the US in the council can only be a positive thing and could help the council achieve its goals of securing and protecting human rights around the globe.

"What we do hope is that the United States stands up and makes a public pledge to uphold the principles of the council," he concluded.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Trinity Hartman