The Obama administration announced on Wednesday that it will seek a new term on the United Nations Human Rights Council despite concerns that the panel remains a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and a forum for repressive nations to deflect attention from abuses they may have committed.
The State Department said the U.S. intends to run in 2012 for another three-year term on the oft-criticized council. Officials said the U.S. believes its presence on the panel for the past two years has helped steer it in the right direction and that it can continue to do so.
The department said that the U.S. has helped mobilize the council to take on crises in countries such as Iran, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan. Libya was a member until earlier this month, when it was suspended over its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters. The officials said U.S. membership has also been key to the council taking on issues that include women's rights, discrimination based on sexual orientation and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly.
"Taken collectively, the actions taken by the 16th Human Rights Council represent a significant positive change in the council's trajectory," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement announcing the decision.
The U.S. had shunned the council and its predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, during President George W. Bush's administration because its membership included rights abusers that Washington said focused unfairly on Israel and ignored atrocities throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But when President Barack Obama came into office in 2009, his administration sought to re-engage the council, arguing the U.S. could do more good as a member than as an outside critic.
Obama and his foreign policy team were roundly criticized for running for, and winning, a seat on the 47-nation, Geneva-based council, particularly after it considered the so-called "Goldstone Report," which called equally on Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas to probe and prosecute any war crimes stemming from the 2009 Gaza conflict or face scrutiny by the International Criminal Court. The U.S. and Israel fought to keep the report from being referred to other U.N. bodies.
Officials said they would continue to push back against what they said was unfair criticism of Israel in the council, saying Washington remains determined to end the council's "biased and disproportionate focus" on the Jewish state.
"The United States maintains a vocal, principled stand against this focus, and will continue its robust efforts to end it," Toner said. "We also will continue to work to thwart the efforts to elect as Council members governments that clearly do not merit membership given their own human rights records."
Officials acknowledged that more improvements were needed but said the U.S. had played an instrumental role in pressing for Libya's suspension, the appointment of a special rapporteur on rights abuses in Iran, protecting the rights of women and other minorities, and condemning atrocities in Ivory Coast and Sudan.
In addition, the officials said the U.S. had been central in turning back calls in the council for the criminalization of blasphemy, which could comprise free speech.
"In our two years on the council, we've not been happy with every outcome, and have firmly denounced council actions we disagree with, but the council has made important strides," Toner said. "Much work remains to be done for the Human Rights Council to sustain the gains of the last two years and to fully realize its potential, and the United States looks forward to continuing our efforts to do so."