Why Did U.S. Lose U.N. Human Rights Seat?

N E W   Y O R K, May 14, 2001 -- When the United States lost its seat on the United Nations' Human Rights Commission this month, it came as a surprise — and a huge embarrassment.

The United States has had a seat on the panel since its inception in 1947, when former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was chairwoman. For it to lose its seat, many of its allies had to vote against it.

That's indeed the case. Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said America's European allies made "a deliberate attempt to punish the United States."

He called the ouster of the United States from the panel an "inexplicable and inexcusable decision."

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the United States has "angered the hell out of our European allies."

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "Clearly, I think it's fair to speculate there may be issues related to how we handled ourselves, to how we position [ourselves]."

The Cost of a Middle Shield

Much of the ire has likely built up in recent weeks as the Bush administration tries to assert itself by moving unilaterally more often than the more collaborative Clinton administration.

In the London newspaper The Guardian, journalist Peter Preston wrote of the United States: "They see themselves as the new masters of a globalized world.

"Russia is a broken power. China needs cutting down to size. They won the Cold War because they broke the Soviet economy and thus the Soviet system without firing a shot."

The most glaring example of this has been the Bush administration's insistence on constructing a nuclear missile defense system for the United States.

The system, much like Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative — or Star Wars, as it was better known — violates the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned missile defenses.

Moscow says the treaty is the foundation of global security, but President Bush says the United States needs the system to protect against nuclear attacks by "rogue" states, and has announced plans to disregard the treaty.

Moscow has said construction of the missile defense system would set off an arms race. The system, as planned now, would cover mainly the United States, and possibly Britain.

Me First

In March, Bush gave the first indication he was going to tend more toward what one British official called "glorious isolation" when he pulled out of the Kyoto accord on climate and pollution.

The 1997 treaty is an international effort to cut emissions of gases that most scientists believe lead to global warming, by getting nearly 40 industrial countries to agree on legally binding emission limits.

But Bush said he was concerned over the effect the treaty could have on jobs in the United States, which is the largest creator of so-called greenhouse gases, and would not follow up.

David Malone, a former Canadian U.N. ambassador and head of the International Peace Academy, a think tank close to the United Nations, told Reuters: "The way the United States withdrew from the Kyoto climate treaty by clearly saying only the U.S. economy and its health were of interest to Washington — this was a very harsh message."

A History of U.N. Tensions

Tensions over the United States' behavior reach far beyond the current administration, however.

The United States has consistently drawn criticism over the past several years for rejecting U.N. efforts to create a permanent war crimes tribunal.

Conservatives in the U.S. Congress have refused to approve the tribunal, fearing Americans could be investigated for military actions overseas.

The United State has also refused to join a ban on anti-personnel mines — even though it has been signed by more than 100 countries, including virtually all of the European Union and the Western Hemisphere.

Washington has demanded key exceptions to the ban, among them the Korean Peninsula, where thousands of American soldiers are deployed.

Finally, the Washington has irritated the United Nations with a continuing backlog of unpaid dues that reached more than $1 billion before a deal was struck earlier this year to pay most of it.

While conservatives in the Senate were largely to blame for the back dues, the failure to pay up hampered the United States when it was acting abroad, forcing it to face other nations as both a world leader and U.N. deadbeat.

Turning the Tables

Now, it's become Washington's turn to gripe.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, called the removal of the United States from the Human Rights Commission "a farce," noting that Sudan, which is on the State Department's list of terrorist nations, was elected to the panel.

The House voted on Thursday to delay parts of a bill that would have partially repaid the United States' U.N. back dues.

Meanwhile, the State Department says it is going to make certain the United States gets back its seat next year.

The State Department says it will not try to figure out which countries didn't vote for the United States.

But there is a possibility it wasn't a protest at all. Some say the European Union simply fielded too many candidates, breaking up the vote.