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What do Algeria, China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam have in common?

If you believe in the international community’s ability to uphold humane standards and the rule of law, you might think that addressing abuses in those six countries are on the agenda for the UN Human Rights Council’s current term. Indeed, all six are rated “not free” in the most recent Freedom House nation-by-nation survey of civil liberties and political rights.

Alas, no. The six countries listed above are among the 14 members elected this month to three-year terms on what is supposed to be the UN’s key human-rights institution. Once again the UN has reinforced the views of cynics and pessimists, who say the Human Rights Council generally functions as a club of authoritarians and dictators more interested in overlooking human-rights violations than in exposing them.

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Under President George W. Bush, the United States washed its hands of the Human Rights Council, refusing to serve on a body whose flaws it felt were incorrigible. President Obama reversed that policy in 2009, in the belief that the council could best be reformed from within. That change was reasonable, but it should also oblige the administration to speak out clearly against the subversion of the council’s mission by the election of countries known for their gross violations of human dignity. Unlike the General Assembly, which is open to every nation, membership on the Human Rights Council is supposed to be reserved only for countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

If anyone understands the importance of articulating those standards it is Samantha Power, the new US ambassador to the United Nations. In her magisterial history of genocide in the 20th century, Power stressed again and again how many lives could have been saved had Western governments only been more fervent and candid about the behavior of the world’s most repressive regimes. That lesson is as relevant as ever, and the UN Human Rights Council is a good place to apply it, publicly and strongly.

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