The UN Human Rights Council was once the poster child for dysfunction at the United Nations. Established in 2006, it was better known for protecting human rights abusers than punishing them. The world’s most repressive regimes routinely got themselves elected to the council to shield themselves from criticism. China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Russia got their fellow diplomats to agree to refrain from naming and shaming specific countries, and instead only discuss general topics. The only country the council singled out regularly was Israel, giving the false impression that Israel is the worst human rights abuser in the world.
Instead of trying to improve the flawed body, the Bush administration refused to serve on it. The Obama administration made a different choice. It got the United States elected to the council in 2009. That relatively small investment has paid off. The council has become more effective. When Libya’s Moammar Khadafy began killing his own people, council members held an emergency meeting that resulted in Libya’s suspension. After concerns about a rise in executions in Iran, as well as increasing detentions of lawyers, journalists, and minorities, the council appointed a special rapporteur to monitor the situation there. When Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters began to escalate, the council condemned President Bashar Assad and appointed a team to investigate the alleged massacre in Houla. While the council is far from perfect — and still singles out Israel disproportionately — it is no longer a charade. Today, the dictators on the council are an isolated minority.
Council members have made strides in establishing international norms for human rights. The fact that some of its most outspoken voices are emerging powers, such as Brazil, bodes well for the future.