WASHINGTON — It was an unprecedented rebuke, and it came with a cost.
The United Nations removed the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Commission in early May, while egregious human rights transgressors Sudan and China retained their seats.
In a bipartisan 252-165 vote days later, the U.S. House canceled a $244 million payment to the United Nations.
May 10's vote came despite resistance from the White House to linking U.S. membership on the Human Rights Commission to paying past U.N. dues.
“It's time to look at membership on the commission,” Rep. Chris Smith, vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee, told the Register. “It's filled with abusers and rogue nations. Under these guidelines, 50 years ago the Nazis could be on this panel.”
That's particularly ironic, Smith added, because the U.N. commission was established in 1947 in response to World War II atrocities. The United States had served on the commission since its inception.
Smith said that Congress would likely hold hearings on how the U.N panel should reform its membership-selection procedures.
The U.N. vote excluding the United States was made by secret ballot among U.N. delegates from Western nations.
It is uncertain exactly why delegates decided to reject United States, which remains the largest financial contributor to U.N. operations. But many observers suggested that President Bush was being punished for a variety of decisions regarded as hostile to the United Nations. In particular, the recent White House announcement that the United States would reject the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming angered European governments.
Other grievances include American resistance to the proposed International Criminal Court, which European governments strongly support, and the sharp differences between the pro-life White House and the pro-abortion European Union regarding international abortion policies.
The White House, however, did not support the congressional retaliation against the United Nations. Before the May 10 vote, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, “While the United States is disappointed with the results of the Human Rights Commission election, the president feels strongly that this issue should not be linked to the payment of our arrears to the U.N. and other international organizations.”
Even so, the White House didn't actively lobby members to vote against the bill.
Said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, “The Congress has the right to work its will as well.”
The House vote would allow Congress to pay $582 million in back dues this year, but would suspend the next installment if the United States fails to regain its seat on the Human Rights Commission.
It is unclear if the provision will pass the Senate, but if it does, Bush is unlikely to veto the bill because it is part of an $8.8 billion State Department appropriations bill.
The House vote came just a week after the May 3 vote by the Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC, which places U.N. member states on the commission on a regional basis.
Despite written assurances of support from European countries, the United States was edged out in a secret ballot that selected France, Austria and Sweden for the three seats reserved for Western countries. The same day, the United States also lost its seat on the United Nation's International Narcotics Board.
Oppressors Are Welcome
Both China and Sudan remain on the Human Rights Commission despite receiving international condemnation for violations of human rights.
China's communist regime continues to impose its harsh “one-child” population-control policy, which human-rights advocates say have led to forced sterilizations and forced abortions.
Sudan's Islamic government has been engaged since 1983 in a brutal civil war that has killed an estimated 2 million residents of the mostly Christian and animist residents of southern Sudan.
As well, China and Sudan were both listed as being among the worst offenders against religious freedom in a report released April 30 by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Minimally, countries that serve on the [U.N. Human Rights] Commission should allow human-rights monitors like Amnesty International or Helsinki Watch into their own countries,” Rep. Smith told the Register.
The removal of the United States from the commission could result in a loss of its credibility, said Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, who served as the head of the Holy See's delegation to the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women.
“It seems to me that this outcome of the voting by ECOSOC is, or should be, something of an embarrassment to the U.N.,” said Glendon. “It will undermine the authority and effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission.”
Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told the Register that while it was “unfortunate” that the United States had lost its seat, the commission remains a vehicle for advancing human rights.
He added that the membership of countries like China and Sudan did not illegimitize the commission. “Being on the commission almost brings more scrutiny,” said Dujarric.
On May 10, Annan told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that he was unhappy about the congressional vote, but pleased that Congress did not also cancel payment of the $582 million in back dues.
“Punishing all 189 member states would be counterproductive and punishing the bureaucracy would be unfair,” Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said in a statement to the Register. “We are just hoping that they don't shoot the messenger.”
But Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, insisted that the United States could not remain silent — because of its support for human rights.
“This is a deliberate attempt to punish the United States for telling the truth when it comes to human-rights violations around the globe,” said Hyde.
“To our critics who would say we're overreaching and overreacting, I would say to do anything less would be a repudiation of our values.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.