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Sore Losermen 2001
Tim Francis-Wright
13 May 2001

During a press conference on Friday, George Bush declared his dismay that the United Nations Human Rights Commission would include Sudan, but not the United States. He echoed the sentiments of pundits from across the country. The House of Representatives even voted to withhold the country's back dues to the United Nations until the restoration of its seat on the Human Rights Commission. It is unfortunate that the United States has lost its seat and countries like Sudan have gained seats. The United States did not, however, lose its seat to Sudan, or Pakistan, or any other country with a poor human rights record. It lost its seat to Sweden. But the fact that countries like Sudan gained seats is a testament to the new administration's failed attempts at diplomacy.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has 53 members, who are elected to three-year terms by the members of the Economic and Social Council. Roughly one-third of the seats on the commission are up for election each year. These seats are allocated to regions of the world: Africa; Asia; Eastern Europe; Latin America and the Caribbean; and Western Europe and the rest of the world. Countries compete for seats within their geographic categories.

In the elections earlier this month, four countries ran unopposed for the seats from Africa: Sierra Leon, Sudan, Togo, and Uganda. From Latin America and the Caribbean, two countries ran unopposed: Chile and Mexico. From Asia, five countries competed for three seats. Bahrain, Pakistan, and South Korea defeated Iran and Saudi Arabia in a secret ballot. From Eastern Europe, four countries competed for two seats. Armenia (38 votes) and Croatia (30 votes) defeated Latvia (24 votes) and Azerbaijan (14 votes). Finally, from Western Europe and the rest of the world, four countries competed for three seats. France (52 votes), Austria (41 votes), and Sweden (32 votes) defeated the United States (29 votes).

In the last of these elections, France and United States were seeking to retain their seats, and Norway was stepping down from the commission. The United States failed to assure its seat by limiting the number of candidates to three. It failed to assure its seat by convincing members of the Economic and Social Council to vote for it over Sweden or Austria. Republicans in the United States Congress have no business demanding the suspension of fair results of a democratic election just because they did not like the outcome. (Perhaps other United Missions could affix "Sore Losermen 2001" bumperstickers on their diplomatic limousines in Geneva and New York this year.)

Recent actions and inactions of the Bush administration probably hurt the chances of the United States to retain its seat on the commission. First, the United States failed to nominate a new ambassador to the United Nations until just before the vote, and its choice, John Negroponte, was a key player in our meddling actions in Central America during the Reagan Administration. Second, earlier this year, the United States stopped actions by European nations in the Human Rights Commission to condemn the death penalty. Third, the Bush administration has embarked on a staunchly unilateralist foreign policy marked by supplanting collective defense with an American missile defense (Star Wars Episode II); speaking out against a treaty establishing an International Criminal Court; and withdrawing its support for the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Fourth, George Bush explained during his campaign that Africa would not be a priority of his administration's foreign policy, and his administration's actions have brought that seed to fruition.

While the Bush administration is justifiably upset that it lost a fair election, it is unjustifiably upset at Sudan's appointment to the commission. The administration knew that Sudan was one of exactly four contenders for the seats from Africa. If Sudan's election were truly undesirable, then the proper course of action would be to encourage a fifth candidate for the election. The administration either did not encourage additional candidates, or its efforts were wholly unsuccessful. The former implies that the administration cares more about its seat on the commission than the work that the commission does. The latter implies that the administration has no clout in Africa whatsoever.

Responsible members of the administration might take heart in the experiences of the United Kingdom and France. Like the United States, India, and Russia, they had held a seat on the commission since its start in 1947 until 1976. In that year, France lost its seat, but gained it back two years later and has never lost it since. It won 52 out of 54 possible votes this month. Great Britain lost its seat twice, in 1978 and 1990. In each case, it won its seat back two years later. Neither one has lost a huge measure of prestige from a short hiatus from this commission. The United States would do well to think of ways to ensure its return to the commission in 2002 and 2003: perhaps our friends in London and Paris could provide some pointers.

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