How to keep the human rights high ground


The U.S. is threatening to withdraw from the controversial U.N. Human Rights Council if it does not undertake “considerable reform,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned a group of nine non-profit organizations this week, according to Foreign Policy:

Tillerson, in his letter to the U.N. advocates and human rights groups, said that while the United States “continues to evaluate the effectiveness” of the Council, it remains skeptical about the virtues of membership in a human rights organization that includes states with troubled human rights records such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

Some democracy and human rights advocates fear that US withdrawal would only embolden and empower authoritarian actors.

“There’s a reason that France, Russia, China and every other world power invests time, money and political capital to campaign for a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council: to gain influence in a consequential world body,” says UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer (right).

“Like it or not, the UNHRC’s decisions, translated into every language, influence the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people around the globe,” he told the U.S. Congress. “If the U.S. wants to be a winner, it would be foolish to abandon the [UNHRC].”

For the past 40 years, the U.S. Congress has been the driving force behind evolving U.S. commitments to promote human rights and democracy, notes John Bradshaw, a former Foreign Service Officer and policy advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“In 1977, Congress directly tackled what was perceived as insufficient State Department interest in human rights by mandating the creation of a human rights bureau in the department,” he writes for The Hill. “In 1983, with strong bipartisan support, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy to promote democracy around the globe and it has been funded by Congress since that time.”

In the past, the influence of the United States has often served to check or moderate the nasty behavior of authoritarian leaders around the world, analyst Christian Caryl writes for The Washington Post.

While some observers believe isolationist ideology could weaken the battle for democracy and human rights, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D.) believes a strong U.S. diplomatic presence is more essential today than ever.

“We need to do more in Africa in promoting democracy. We need to do more in the Middle East in promoting good governance and inclusive government, so we don’t have to have as many wars,” Cardin said. “We need to do things in our own hemisphere. … There’s a lot of work for America to do.”

A question remains what the State Department will look like and whether it can do its job with its reach — and its budget – reduced, Bloomberg reports.

“These are the condo fees of global leadership,” said Daniel Runde, a Republican who’s a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We have a Republican Congress and a Republican executive branch, and we’re overdue for a strategic conversation for how we use our soft power in the world.”

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