The composition of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights changes annually, since a third of the seats are up for grabs each year. Elections, which take place in the spring, determine which countries will be granted new three-year terms and which will cycle off come December 31. Ever since the body was founded in 1947, however, there have been three constant firmaments in this otherwise ever-changing galaxy. There have always been seats held by India, Russia and the United States. But this tradition will come to a halt next January 1: India’s and Russia’s representatives will still be there, but an American one will not.The United States was voted off the Commission on Human Rights this past spring. It also lost its place on the UN body that monitors the international drug trade.
Whenever there is a break from a long-standing pattern, it is tempting to focus on short-term causes. Critics of the new Administration are eager to see these two votes as a negative judgment on its unilateral approach to the arms race, cold war nostalgia and reversal of course on the Kyoto Protocols on global warming. Defenders of President George W. Bush, meanwhile, stress bad timing: The UN elections came while China was upset about the Administration’s “tough” (though,to some hawks, not tough enough) handling of the spy-plane incident and while tensions in the Middle East were rising–something that presumably encouraged Arab states to join Beijing in voting against the United States.
However, one thing that the books under review make clear, each in its own way, is the need to place the issue in a long-term perspective. For example, Oxford-based diplomatic historian Rosemary Foot reminds us in Rights Beyond Borders that tensions between China and the United States were playing themselves out in Geneva, where the Commission on Human Rights meets, long before the term EP-3 became known to the American public. Moreover, as Robert Drinan (a Jesuit priest and former Democratic Congressman) and Noam Chomsky show in The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States , respectively, too much can be made of the novelties of the new Bush Administration’s policies.
Before going any further, let me stress that I do not mean to suggest that Drinan, much less Chomsky, is a fan of George II’s approach to international affairs. Even though The Mobilization of Shame and Rogue States were completed before George W. began exerting influence in foreign policy, after all, there is plenty of criticism in both of an Administration that contained some of the same key players and was motivated by the same guiding principles as this one: his father’s. For example, Drinan laments that during the “twelve years of the Reagan-Bush administrations,” the United States was not “aggressively proactive” in the “defense of human rights.” Chomsky is blunter: It is odd, he claims, that though Reagan and Bush liked to think of themselves as “guardians of global order,” both had “unusually warm relations” with dictators, including some, such as Saddam Hussein, they would eventually come to call “mass murderers.”
In other words, tempting as it might have been for Drinan and Chomsky to place the blame for the commission votes at the feet of the new President, neither would do so if given the opportunity, nor would they even say that only Republican administrations have been at fault. Why? Because both see enduring flaws in Washington’s approach to human rights, flaws that transcend the Democrat-Republican divide. Drinan, not surprisingly, has more positive things to say about some Democratic leaders of the past than does Chomsky. Drinan praises Jimmy Carter, for example, for delivering speeches on freedom that “gave hope and inspiration to countless dissidents” and helped “the idea of human rights to enter the political and moral coinage of the nation and to some extent of the world.” Nevertheless, Drinan, like Chomsky, argues that for decades there has been too little consistency and too much hubris in the American handling of human rights no matter who has occupied the Oval Office.