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Human Rights Experts Call for Reformed UN Rights Council

With the United States set to join the U.N. Human Rights Council next month, rights advocates say Washington has an opportunity to restore credibility to an organization whose members include countries with poor human rights records. The U.S. was elected to the Council last month for a three year term beginning June 19th. But some experts do not hold out much hope for real progress in the U.N. body.

Advocates says progress is slow

Human rights advocates, frustrated by little progress in countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and China are questioning the Obama administration's ability to make headway on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after the U.S. was elected to the Council that she is under no illusions. "We certainly share the view that the Council has not performed to its potential, but we wouldn't be running if we thought it was impossible for the Council to fulfill the vision that we all had when it was established," she said.

The UN Human Rights Council is the successor organization to the UN Human Rights Commission.

Mark Lagon, who was a top State Department official under President Bush, helped negotiate the creation of the new council three years ago - though the Bush administration later decided to boycott it. "The commission on human rights was seen as deadlocked and politicized," Lagon said. "Unfortunately, this new body has been no better and arguably worse."

Advocates call for more spotlight on violators

But Paula Schriefer of Freedom House says the body's power lies in putting a spotlight on human rights violators.

"The U.S. for instance used to play a leadership role in actually putting forward resolutions. Sometimes those resolutions would pass, sometimes they wouldn't," Schriefer said. "And, frankly, it doesn't necessarily matter that they don't pass every time. It's important just to put them forward."

And this was the case with China, Shriefer says, when the U.S. would introduce resolutions condemning Beijing's human rights record - even though they did not pass.

Mark Lagon says the United States and other democracies should speak up about human right abuses in Iran, Burma, and even strategic allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia. "If the United States is to take part in the Human Rights Council, it needs to be forthright. It needs to speak up for the values that the UN is supposed to represent," he said.

Schriefer says the U.S. has to put as many resources into the U.N. body as other countries do.

"One of the reasons I think we can argue with a very straight face that the Council remains relevant, is the fact that the countries with poor human right records continue to care so much about it and to put so many resources towards it," she said.

Overall, advocates agree that it is better for the United States to have a voice on the Council than not. Schriefer says it is the only global mechanism for the promotion of human rights.