The Obama administration claimed a quiet diplomatic victory after a frantic but largely invisible campaign to keep Syria from winning a seat on the United Nations body charged with policing international human rights.
Failure would have meant a major embarrassment to the administration. It has taken a leading role in the Human Rights Council after years in which the U.S. dismissed it as an anti-Israel peanut gallery, and a Syrian victory might have meant the end of that effort.
Syria was poised earlier this month to gain membership at the same time its regime was pressing a brutal crackdown that had killed more than 900 people and the U.S. was readying sanctions on President Bashar Assad. Not a single Arab or Asian country was willing to run against the Syrians. The administration was dealing with a hostile Congress that wanted no part of the human rights body, long held up as Exhibit A for American critics of the U.N.
Intense arm-twisting followed in Asian capitals from Tokyo to Riyadh, according to two administration officials who described the sensitive diplomacy on condition of anonymity. The U.S. warned Arab countries that they would be represented by a government that had become emblematic of a thuggish response to the stirrings of democracy in the Middle East. Eventually the pressure mounted on Syria, and Kuwait took its place.
"The international community is taking the council and its mandate more seriously," said Suzanne Nossel, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations.
Getting Syria out of the way eliminated a potentially debilitating loss of legitimacy for the Geneva-based council, created five years ago to improve on the patchy record of the Eleanor Roosevelt-inspired Human Rights Commission.
It further bolstered the council's credibility following the unanimous decision in February to oust Libya after Moammar Gadhafi's deadly attacks on civilians and Iran's loss a year ago, when it sought one of 47 places on the body.
For the Obama administration, the alternative would have meant another fight with Republicans in Congress, who have seized on the council as an example of the administration's naivete in world affairs. They routinely describe the body as a sham dominated by repressive Muslim governments allied with China, Russia and others. And they lament that Israel has been the recipient of most of its condemnations.
"We do not help the cause of human rights or the victims of abuses by trying to prop up the failed Human Rights Council," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said last month. She has promised to fight U.S. membership in the body. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. stayed away and Congress sought to deny $3 million in annual funding to the council.
But the current administration has chosen a different tack, working with the council as part of President Barack Obama's vision outlined in Cairo in 2009 to "use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible."
Although the council lacks the teeth to authorize sanctions or back up much of its criticism with action, its resolutions and rebukes are taken seriously, especially by human rights abusing countries keen to project that they are good international citizens. Holding them accountable for abuses is important, American officials stress. And they say the council can empower activists and civil society groups struggling to build the bases for democracy in repressive societies.
"When you have a council with Brazil, Argentina, Korea and others voting to hold Iran accountable, the government can no longer say human rights is just a political game that the U.S. and Europe plays," said Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian-born human rights activist in New York. He cited a March resolution appointing a special investigator to examine Iranian rights violations. "Without this, the Iranian government would have felt impunity to increase its oppression."
Obstacles to the council's effectiveness remain. The clubbiness of the organization means that only two of 17 candidate countries didn't win a seat in last week's election. Nations only run against others in their region, and they generally rotate to ensure that no one loses face. That means countries like Congo can get in despite poor rights records.
The tone has changed slightly since the U.S. joined and became the first country to appoint an ambassador dedicated solely to the body.
Anti-Israel talk has declined. The U.S. won support for a special investigator to examine how governments were respecting the right to freedom of assembly around the world, a job that has gained significance with the spread of pro-democracy protests across the Arab world. And American officials have helped bridge differences between Muslim countries angered by what they deem to be blasphemous cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and Western nations intent on guarding the right to free speech.
Elevating the council's visibility, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton travelled to Geneva to give an address in March, praising it for booting Libya from its ranks. That action was the first global condemnation of Gadhafi's regime, and helped spur the U.N. Security Council's authorization of an international military intervention to protect Libya's civilians.
Next month, the council could have more impact. The results of fact-finding missions to Libya and the Ivory Coast are due to be released, and their findings could help international prosecutors mulling further war crimes charges.
"In rapid succession over the last three months, the council has passed tough resolutions on Libya, Iran and Syria," Nossel said. The results have "strengthened the hands of local activists and sparked investigations that will demand accountability for serious abuses being perpetrated."