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As Iran’s bid to join rights body fails, U.S. claims victory

The Obama administration today applauded Iran’s decision to withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the 47-nation Human Rights Council, portraying it as a vindication of its decision to join the controversial U.N. rights body and try to reform it from within. Iranian officials informed their colleagues this morning in a meeting of the Asian ...

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration today applauded Iran's decision to withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the 47-nation Human Rights Council, portraying it as a vindication of its decision to join the controversial U.N. rights body and try to reform it from within.

Iranian officials informed their colleagues this morning in a meeting of the Asian Group at the United Nations that they intended to pull out of the race, according to U.N. diplomats. Tehran's retreat from the race ensures that its competitors Thailand, Malaysia, the Maldives, and Qatar, will run uncontested for the four seats available in the council for candidates from Asia. The U.N. General Assembly is scheduled to hold the vote for a total of 12 new members of the Human Rights Council members on May 13.

U.S. officials said that they had mounted a quiet, behind-the-scenes campaign to block Iran's election to the council, sending confidential demarches to the vast majority of the U.N.'s 192 members. They said they intentionally avoided a public campaign criticizing Iran's rights record to prevent Tehran from portraying its bid as a battle with the world's superpower. "This is a step in the right direction for the council," said one U.S. official.

The Obama administration today applauded Iran’s decision to withdraw its candidacy for a seat on the 47-nation Human Rights Council, portraying it as a vindication of its decision to join the controversial U.N. rights body and try to reform it from within.

Iranian officials informed their colleagues this morning in a meeting of the Asian Group at the United Nations that they intended to pull out of the race, according to U.N. diplomats. Tehran’s retreat from the race ensures that its competitors Thailand, Malaysia, the Maldives, and Qatar, will run uncontested for the four seats available in the council for candidates from Asia. The U.N. General Assembly is scheduled to hold the vote for a total of 12 new members of the Human Rights Council members on May 13.

U.S. officials said that they had mounted a quiet, behind-the-scenes campaign to block Iran’s election to the council, sending confidential demarches to the vast majority of the U.N.’s 192 members. They said they intentionally avoided a public campaign criticizing Iran’s rights record to prevent Tehran from portraying its bid as a battle with the world’s superpower. "This is a step in the right direction for the council," said one U.S. official.

"Our key goal is to strengthen credibility and effectiveness of the human rights council; and that hinges on membership," added Suzanne Nossel, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations. She welcomed the spectacle of seeing Iran "mount a bid to see it falter."

Human rights groups and European diplomats said that Iran’s violent post-election crackdown on demonstrators and opposition figures had undercut its campaign to serve in the rights council. The decision today, they said, reflected the Iranian government’s realization that it could not muster the votes needed to prevail, even over a small country like the Maldives. "I think they have done the sums and realized they didn’t have anywhere near the number of votes to look even respectable," said a European diplomat. The diplomat said Iran had indicated that it may mount another run for the rights seat in 2013.

"Iran saw the writing on the wall," said Peggy Hicks of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "It was mounting global opposition that drove them out of the race and their appalling human rights record made it impossible for them to mount a successful campaign."

Hicks said that the lesson that the United States and other supporters of a strong rights council should take from Iran’s action is the importance of holding competitive elections for open seats. U.N. posts are generally divided up regional groups of countries from Asia, Latin America, Africa. And most groups settle on an agreed slate of candidates. The United States — which is a member of the Western European and Others Group — ran uncontested last year for its seat on the rights council as part of pre-agreed slate of candidates. New Zealand, which had intended to campaign for a slot on the council, stepped aside to assure an American victory. The Iranian experience, Hicks said, "makes it clear that competitive elections work."

The U.N. Human Rights Council was established in March 2006 to replace the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which had gained a reputation in Washington and European capitals for going soft on repressive governments. The Bush administration declined to join the new rights body, saying it feared it would be biased towards Israel and that it had little confidence in its ability to confront the world’s worst abusers of human rights. The Bush administration subsequently agreed to help finance its operations, and serve as an observer at the body’s Geneva headquarters.

Repressive governments have actively sought membership in the Human Rights Council, and its predecessor organization, in order to shield their governments from criticism. Countries with poor rights records — including China, Cuba, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — are currently members.

In joining the rights council, the Obama administration said it recognized the body had severe defects, including a proclivity for heaping excess criticism on Israel, but that it could help reform it by participating as full member, not as a spectator scolding from the benches.

A spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond immediately to a request for comment on why the country pulled out of the race. Iran’s deputy ambassador, Eshagh Al-Habib, simply told the Asian group in a closed door meeting that Iran had made its decision "in the interest of solidarity with the rest of the group," according to a U.N. diplomat briefed on the meeting.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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