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Backlash: United Nations Human Rights Commission

May 9, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Last Thursday, in secret votes, the U.S. was ousted from two United Nations panels: the Human Rights Commission, and the International Narcotics Control Board. Most stunning was the loss of the seat on the Human Rights Commission, which monitors the state of human rights around the world and censures countries that abuse its citizens.

Secretary of State Colin Powell had been assured that the U.S. had written commitments from enough countries to retain the seat it has held since 1947. But the secret ballot vote turned out otherwise. The three Western seats up for grabs went to three European countries instead: France, Austria, and Sweden.

Other nations that won or still hold seats on the 53-member commission include countries frequently cited for human rights abuses, including China, Cuba, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. The Bush administration blamed the setback on the strong stand the U.S. takes against human rights violators.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, National Security Adviser: The sad thing is not for the United States. The sad thing is that the country that has been the beacon for those fleeing tyranny for 200 years is not on this commission and Sudan is on this commission. It’s very bad for those people who are suffering under tyranny around the world. And it is an outrage. Obviously, the United States has been too strong on the human rights agenda. I suspect that this is a backlash of those who don’t like being judged; that perhaps the United States is a little active on the Human Rights Commission.

MARGARET WARNER: A U.N. spokesman said Secretary-General Kofi Annan understood the U.S. disappointment but hoped Washington would not retaliate.

FRED ECKHARD, Spokesman: We would hope that the organization, itself, wouldn’t be blamed for what was really a vote by member states. It may take some explanation to members of Congress of exactly how these things work. And, of course, in this statement we just said that we hoped the U.S. will stay engaged.

MARGARET WARNER: But anger mounted on Capitol Hill with reports that Congress would retaliate for the two ousters by withholding $582 million in back dues that the U.S. owes the U.N. this year. Yesterday, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer urged restraint.

ARI FLEISCHER: The president believes we should pay the dues that we owe to the United Nations, but the president is also concerned about the signal the United Nations through these two entities is sending to the world about the seriousness which these entities will carry out the mission in fighting for human rights or fighting against drugs.

MARGARET WARNER: Late yesterday, a bipartisan majority on the House International Relations Committee struck a compromise. It agreed to support the current back dues payments but to freeze the third and final payment of $244 million until the U.S. regains its seat on the Human Rights Commission. The House is scheduled to vote on this as part of the State Department Authorization Bill tomorrow.

For more on all this we turn to Republican Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee; he previously served as chairman of its Human Rights Subcommittee; and former Ambassador William Luers. He’s now the chairman and president of the United Nations Association of the United States, a group that advocates stronger U.S./U.N. ties. He was a Foreign Service officer for 31 years. Welcome, gentlemen.

Ambassador Luers, you sit up there, you watch the workings of the United Nations. Why did this happen? Why did the U.S. get thrown off two panels?

WILLIAM LUERS: Well, to explain simply, the voting for the Human Rights Commission is done in five different groups. We’re in the Western European group, which has 10 seats on the Human Rights Commission. And everyone votes for the groups. So in our case there were four candidates for three positions on the Western European group: Sweden, France, Austria, and the United States. And when it came to the vote, even though we had had assurances, when all the others voted for three members to be up for the three seats available in the Western group, we didn’t get the nod. And so it was done — I think it’s important to note that these are individual states voting by group, not overall, so we weren’t competing against the Sudanese for this.

MARGARET WARNER: But what do you think is behind it? Why did this happen?

WILLIAM LUERS: Well, I think that becomes more complicated, and I think there are several dimensions of it. First, I think we didn’t realize this might occur, and we didn’t do the lobbying and logrolling that are necessary… whether it’s in Congress or the U.N., we didn’t make the deals. What should have happened is we should have made sure that only three candidates went into the voting from Western Europe so that we would have assured our seat.

Secondly, there’s some background noise. Part of it is what you said in your introduction. Clearly, we are the toughest country on human rights. We do insist on discussing all human rights violations, and we do it rather aggressively. Secondly, I think there is also some underlying concern about our commitment to the UN, to international cooperation, to international treaties, whether it’s the Kyoto Treaty or our failure to pay our dues, our failure to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty — these are all part of a fabric of problems that I think many — even of our closest friends think — reflect a growing detachment for the United States from the international community, particularly the United Nations.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, what do you think was behind this?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: First of all, I take Secretary Colin Powell at his word. He said we had reassurances from an excess of 40 nations that would support us. It would appear that those nations broke their word to the United States, and that’s [not] insignificant. That’s very, very important, and I think we need to expose that and find out who it is that said one thing, and did precisely the opposite.

When the Ambassador talks about the Kyoto Treaty, I support the Kyoto Treaty, I think it has some flaws [but] I voted for it the other day in committee. But I don’t think that’s it at all. I mean, I don’t think it’s arrearages. We have already forked up some of our arrearage. We are the major donor, bar none. Remember, we give three to five times more than Germany, the United Kingdom, 35 more times more than the People’s Republic of China in terms of money — about $2 billion a year — when you have voluntary contributions to the U.N. We’re the major donor; no one even comes close. And we are paying our arrearages; the bill that’s pending is $582 million in arrearages for the second … and it would be $244 million as you noted a moment ago, but I think this all comes down to speaking truth to dictatorships.

We have been outspoken; the Bush administration has spoken very clearly about the human rights problems in China where there has been a horrendous crackdown on religious beliefs. The Falun Gong, a hundred Falun Gong practitioners were tortured to death last year — that’s what we know of. There may have been more — Catholics, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists in Cuba, we’ve seen a very bad human rights record get even worse in a number of areas, and you look who now who has made a beeline to join Geneva, to join the U.N. Human Rights Commission, it is rogue nations. The day the United States went off, Sudan went on.

Sudan has chattel slavery right now as we speak. I had a hearing back in 1996, and people said “What, slavery today?” It is because we spoke so forcefully, on China in particular, and if you look at the votes as they broke down on Libya, on Sudan, on Iraq, on of course on China — the number of abstentions and the number of no votes and just the make up — there is a backlash…

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But, Congressman, are you saying you don’t think there’s any of what Ambassador Luers called background noise and resentment against the U.S. for not cooperating?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Margaret, I think it becomes a pretext and a very easy handle for people to think, oh, they’re not paying their dues. We have — in peacekeeping traditionally we carried 32 percent of the peacekeeping costs and in general dues 25 percent. Part of the reform package — as a matter of fact, the reform package was in my bill. It was Jesse Helms and Senator Biden crafted it but it was contained in my bill HR-3427 a comprehensive reform package to try to say let’s get inspectors general, let’s get a whole host of reforms at the U.N.

There is some progress being made, and as the president has said, Ari Fleischer said few moments ago, we do want to pay the dues, but now this finger in the eye and saying on human rights we have really walked point for the world as a nation of emigres, immigrants — people who have fled persecution, every ethnic diversity abounds in the United States — who better to speak about dictatorships than the United States, and yet now we have been muzzled and gagged by being kept off that commission. We are saying to the U.N. we want to go back on and we also want to see the membership change.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Ambassador Luers back in here. Ambassador Luers, what is the practical effect of being voted off, for instance, the Human Rights Commission? Is the U.S. now muzzled? What’s going to happen?

WILLIAM LUERS: I agree fully with the Congressman that our not being on it would change the nature of that commission. The major impact of the commission is not on practices but on focusing directly the camera on those countries that violate human rights. And the Congressman was absolutely right; we’re the ones who do that most consistently and without us there, the Human Rights Commission will not play that role as effectively or as credibly as it did when we were on it.

I think it’s important to point out, however, that the background noise that I spoke about, that I’m hearing up here, is really about some of these other issues. It’s not directly about human rights, because, in fact, had the Europeans been behind us – who are very strong on human rights — we would have had our seat. And it’s the Europeans who are telling me these stories about their concern about our commitment to the other international —

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Let me just make a point, and I think it’s very important, Margaret, again, we are the major donors. This year —

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you, Congressman. Ambassador Luers isn’t talking about the dues; he’s talking about other things like the Kyoto Treaty, the ABM Treaty, comprehensive test ban, the land mine treaty — things that our European allies do support, and they feel apparently that, you know, the U.S. won’t go along and it’s obstructing; what about that point? Do you think there is any validity to that, that that was a factor here?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: I think it would be a grave mistake to take individual human rights issues and say because on a climate change issue where we want to reduce greenhouse gases by 7 or 8 percent to 1990 levels, in essence, that treaty — which President Clinton never submitted to ratification either, even though he was a part of that process…

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying…

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: …to use that as a pretext would be a grave mistake. Show their consternation somewhere else, not at the body where we’ve seen a growing number of rogue states playing increasingly influential roles.

I would think in modest proposal today that being in arrearage say for any country leads to a loss of a vote in a general assembly, egregious, barbaric behavior on the part of any country should disqualify that particular country from membership, from service on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and we have language in the bill that Henry Hyde’s introduced that says if we do not allow — they don’t allow that country unfettered access by the U.N. personnel — that is to say — someone dealing with human rights issues — or by a member of the Red Cross — the International Red Cross or Amnesty International — that would bar them from being members of the U.N. Human Rights —


WILLIAM LUERS: I think the Congressman is slightly deviating from the fact that a Western European group that didn’t — that made it possible for us not to be on that Commission — I don’t think it was about human rights.


MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, please let him finish.

WILLIAM LUERS: The effect is to damage the commission’s work and our work in the area of human rights. The reasons, though, I think are far more complicated than you’ve described. Clearly, I agree with you on all those human rights issues, which you discussed. For us to punish the U.N. by withholding money or present even more conditions to our involvement in the U.N. I think would be a grave mistake.

And I hope that the Congressional leadership, which I think has been so far quite correct in their approach in trying to move forward this $528 million and pay it on time — when we’ve waited, we’ve placed so many conditions on the U.N. in order to have us pay what we owe them — and you’ve been supportive of this yourself. Now we should pay that money and not place yet another condition on this payment. And I hope that the Congress will continue on the direction that they’re on now to pay this — and hopefully pay it next year. I think we’ll be back on the commission next year.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman, what’s going to happen tomorrow when this deal you’ve arranged comes to the floor?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Well, again, I support the compromise. I think it’s a bipartisan effort — Henry Hyde came to us offering the amendment, and I fully support it. It would allow the $582 million to flow, but the next … , which would be next year, which gives us the ability to revote the U.S. on but thankfully, the only silver lining I see in this is the larger issue of membership on the U.N. Human Rights Commission itself. We’ve got to stop this rogue nation muddying of the waters. I’ve met with 21 delegations in Geneva during this latest session. I met with the French. I was appalled, appalled that none of our European partners would join us as co-sponsors on the Chinese resolution. In the end they voted for it somewhat reluctantly, I would submit, but they would not cosponsor it; that sent a clear message to Beijing of lack of seriousness when in the previous years they were willing to cosponsor it.

WILLIAM LUERS: Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Congressman, that this is not about the U.N. per se, it’s about our ability to work carefully and closely in cooperation with our European allies — the other great democracies of the world — on such important issues, and we have to have an environment in our relationship with Western Europe that enables us to get them with us on a lot of these issues — but unless this administration, as the previous administration, is prepared to work more cooperatively on a whole range of international issues, I think we’re going to find this type of issue happening more and more often. And it will be to our detriment and the world’s detriment if we are sort of set aside in the U.N. and in other international organizations.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.