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Does the U.S. deserve its new seat on the Human Rights Council?

The election of the United States to the U.N. Human Rights Council by the General Assembly this morning drew sighs of relief from human rights advocates who feared that a U.S. defeat would undercut American support for the U.N.’s principal rights body. The United States garnered the highest number of votes in a five-way race ...

The election of the United States to the U.N. Human Rights Council by the General Assembly this morning drew sighs of relief from human rights advocates who feared that a U.S. defeat would undercut American support for the U.N.’s principal rights body.

The United States garnered the highest number of votes in a five-way race for three seats reserved for Western governments, besting Germany and Ireland, who also secured seats on the council, and leaving Greece and Sweden in defeat.

The vote represented a victory for Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council, who ran the risk of possible defeat in an effort to promote open elections at the United Nations.

Rice said the United States is "proud" to have been elected in a "very spirited campaign" to a second three-year term.    

But did the U.S. really win on its merits?

Does the United States — with its death penalty, its controversial detention and shoot-to-kill drone policies — really have a better human rights record than Sweden?

"No," tweeted Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program. But the United States, he added, "has more political power to secure" U.N. General Assembly votes denouncing rights abuses. Dakwar said that the United States falls short of its European competitors for the seat, due to its excesses in the war on terrorism, discriminatory criminal justice system, and immigration policy. And yet, said Dakwar, "On balance, the United States deserves to be on the Human Rights Council because of its overall record on human rights issues over the years and its commitment to strengthening human rights."

Dakwar’s remarks reflect a widely held view among human rights proponents, and European governments, that despite the Obama administration’s failings, Washington’s leadership remains vital to promoting broad human rights protections at the United Nations. It’s probably better to have Washington than Sweden on your side when you’re facing off with an emboldened new generation of Islamic leaders who are committed to adopting resolutions outlawing criticism of religions.

"It is not just about one’s human rights record it’s also about their ability to make an effective contribution to advancing the Human Rights Council," said Peggy Hicks, an expert at Human Rights Watch. "In that sense, the U.S. carries far more political weight."

Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said that America’s election provides Washington with an opportunity not only to promote human rights values abroad, but to live up to them at home. "The most important contribution the United Nations can now make to the cause of human rights is a determined effort to regain its own credibility," Nossel said. "The continued indefinite detention without criminal charges of 166 men at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, the ongoing military commission proceedings that fail to meet fair trial standards, a drone program shrouded in secrecy, and the lack of accountability for torture and disappearances in the so-called ‘war on terror’ undermine human rights and undercut the legitimacy of the U.S.’s voice at the council."

The U.N. 47-nation Human Rights Council was established in 2006. But the George W. Bush administration refused to join it, saying membership would lend legitimacy to a body that included many governments with appalling rights records. Obama reversed course, arguing that it would be better to improve the body from within than lecturing from the outside.

In recent years, the Obama administration has used its influence to prevent countries with poor rights records from joining the body, running campaigns to block countries like Belarus, Iran, and Syria from getting on the council. But today’s vote — which also resulted in election victories for Venezuela and Pakistan — shows that it remains a struggle to ensure that members of the council are actually committed to promoting human rights. Critics of the Geneva-based council argued that the fact that countries like Pakistan and Venezuela won a greater number of votes than the United States highlights the council’s moral bankruptcy.

The real culprit in this unfolding spectacle is the U.N. system of regional voting blocs, which generally pre-select a list of candidates based on which country is next in line. The practice ensures that everyone gets their chance — whether they deserve it or not — and there are no messy elections.

It is hard to offer a precise measurement of a country’s human rights record because the major human rights advocatcy groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, don’t rank nations by their record. The Freedom House Freedom Index, though, includes all five Western candidates in the ranks of the "free." Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Index ranks Sweden higher, at 12, than any of the 18 countries voted on the Human Rights Council, including the United States, which ranked 47.

But Sweden is by no means perfect, according to rights advocates.

Amnesty International has criticized Sweden for detaining and surrendering two Egyptian asylum seekers, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari, via a CIA-leased plane to Egypt, where they allegedly were subject to torture. And Sweden also failed to meet international standards in considering asylum applications from Roma that fled Serbia.

But the Swedish candidacy had two liabilities.

For one, according to rights advocates, it had taken a tougher stance — alongside the United States — against the traditional practice of trading votes on other elections in order to win. And a loss for Sweden posed no threat to the U.N. rights institution itself. "There was a concern that if the United States was defeated it would give fodder to those who are skeptical about U.S. engagement at the council in the first place," said Peggy Hicks.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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