- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

A lively debate over the new United Nations Human Rights Council ended this week when the Bush administration announced that it would not seek a seat this year on the 47-member panel.

On one side were President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and most of the center-right policy establishment arguing that the council was no better or worse than the badly flawed Human Rights Commission it replaces. On the other side were Sens. Norm Coleman and Richard Lugar, Rep. Henry Hyde and key liberal internationalists arguing that engagement would be the only hope of improving the council. The decision is by no means permanent: Next spring the United States can review the council’s first year and decide whether to change course.

For now, though, the move has the immediate effect of making the United States the only U.N. Security Council member not to seek election to the body on May 9. Meanwhile, international pariahs like Cuba and Iran are running for seats and are no doubt happy to see the United States taking its place on the sidelines.

In some respects, the administration’s wait-and-see approach makes sense. Like the old commission, the council does not have any real prohibitions against the membership of gross human-rights violators, so it could easily repeat the farcical election of thuggish governments like those of Sudan and Libya, which stripped the commission of legitimacy. Once these governments are elected, it will be hard to remove them before their terms expire. It would take a two-thirds majority to suspend a member that commits gross violations.

This debate is a microcosm of the larger debate over the United Nations: Should we engage a flawed institution in an attempt to improve it, or is the institution simply too tainted to merit the effort? The United States and its allies found plenty of salutary uses for the United Nations during the Cold War; whether they have the will or the way in the age of terrorism is unclear.

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