Move Over, Belgium?

Since the United States opted to send back the observer to the Human Rights Council that the Bush Administration had recalled nine months earlier, the next logical question has been whether the U.S. would opt to run for an official seat on the Council in its May elections. No decision has yet been made, but one is expected very soon, and signs seem to be pointing in a positive direction.

The rumors suggesting a U.S. decision to run, however, include a somewhat disconcerting detail. Rather than entering a competitive election in the “Western European and Others Group” to which it belongs, the United States may seek to convince one of the current candidates in the group to drop out, leaving Washington to run unopposed. Norway, Belgium, and New Zealand are currently the only countries campaigning for three slots, and I’m told that Belgium, the EU’s representative, would be the one to bow out in this scenario.

Deciding to campaign for a spot on the Council would be, as Mark has argued before, a very smart move for an Obama Administration seeking to bolster its image in the world, engage more with other countries, and, not insignificantly, improve the Human Rights Council itself. And the question is really one of when rather than if the United States will run, given the Obama team’s hints on the issue. This decision is weighted considerably by the fact that, if it runs next year, it will not be able to contribute to the mandatory review of the Council – a prime opportunity to push for reforms.

But the option of running in an unopposed field of candidates is wrongheaded and counterproductive. First, it is most likely unnecessary, as the United States stands a very good chance to win a seat anyway if it chooses to campaign. Second, and more fundamentally, this undermines the entire principle of competitive elections that has made the Human Rights Council an improvement over its ineffectual predecessor, and which were a sticking point for the United States in the negotiations to create the Council. Sure, unsavory countries still make it on to the body, but this is largely through a system of bloc voting in which each region agrees on a certain number of candidates to propose. A system that, come to think of it, seems suspiciously similar to what the United States would be engineering if it nudged Belgium off the stage…

On the plus side, at least Iceland’s not in the running to get snubbed once again for an international body.

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