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"A Wake-Up Call on Human Rights"--An Op-Ed by Prof. Harold Hongju Koh

A Wake-Up Call on Human Rights

(Note: This editorial originally appeared in the May 8, 2001 edition of the Washington Post.)

By Harold Hongju Koh, Gerard C. And Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law; former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

The world was properly stunned last week when the United States was voted off the U.N. Human Rights Commission for the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt helped found that body more than 50 years ago. As startling as the secret vote, which apparently even some close Americans allies supported, was the fact that the United States, with 29 votes (of a possible 54), trailed not just our competitors for the three Western seats but also such human rights outlaws as Sudan and Pakistan. Clearly, the world was trying to teach us a lesson. But will we learn the right one?

Let's first dismiss two possible reactions. First, that the humiliating diplomatic defeat doesn't matter, because the commission is just a meaningless talk shop. Admittedly, commission sessions are filled with posturing and high-minded speeches by countries such as China and Cuba. Yet the commission has also showed an unrivaled capacity to spotlight abuses, develop important statements of principle, build consensus responses to emerging human rights issues and mobilize international attention by sending commissions of inquiry and special rapporteurs to investigate violations in human rights hot spots.

Whether we like it or not, the commission will help develop the world's multilateral agenda on human rights and democracy. If we withdraw from that agenda--or participate only from the sidelines--we will increasingly find ourselves its target.

A second, more pernicious reaction, would have us "teach the U.N. a lesson" by withholding back dues or taking other punitive actions against it. Such fits of pique would be not just ineffective, but counterproductive as well. U.N. members would surely retaliate, not just by voting against our initiatives, but also by excluding us from other U.N. bodies, opposing our candidates for key posts or refusing our calls for peacekeepers, humanitarian workers and others to perform the countless thankless tasks Americans are spared because of our U.N. participation.

We need to support the United Nations more, not less, not just because it is doing things we cannot do alone but also because it can now act willfully without us, motivated by those less committed to its noble stated purposes.

Last week's vote is a wake-up call that the era of automatic global deference to U.S. leadership on human rights is over. Our belief in our global exceptionalism has too often led us to vote alone at the commission, falsely assuming that such isolationism has no costs. In the session just past, we stood alone or nearly alone in refusing to support resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS, acknowledging a human right to adequate food, condemning disappearances and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Although far less law-abiding countries have ratified international treaties on economic, social and cultural rights, rights of the child, discrimination against women, banning land mines and an international criminal court, our Senate refuses even to hold hearings on the wisdom of joining these instruments.

Our response should be neither indifference nor anger but action. In the months ahead, the Bush foreign policy team faces three multilateral issues on which the United States can take active leadership positions to promote our human rights principles.

First, in late June, the U.N. General Assembly holds a global conference on HIV/AIDS, at which the United States can lead support for Secretary General Kofi Anan's new global AIDS fund.

Second, in late August, the United Nations convenes its World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. As America's first African American secretary of state, Colin Powell should lead our delegation, not only to display our commitment to addressing African democracy and human rights but also to discuss our own national struggle to find "best-practice" solutions to racism and the global plight of indigenous peoples.

Third, next September, more than 100 of the world's democracies will gather in Seoul for the second biennial Community of Democracies meeting, hosted by Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae Jung. By attending, the Bush administration would send the message that--even outside the Human Rights Commission--it intends to work  with other democracies to seek solutions to such problems as the AIDS crisis, global warming, terrorism and international trafficking in drugs and people.

Even after last week's debacle, the world still wants American leadership on human rights. The question is: Do we still have the courage and vision to provide it?