The United Nations in New York
The United Nations in New YorkIsrael News Photo: (file)

The U.S. State Department was forced Wednesday to defend the Obama administration's decision to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council. The move was met with criticism from Jewish groups and conservative American leaders, who called for maintaining the Bush-era boycott of what they see as a biased, anti-Israel body.

At a press conference on Wednesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid explained that the U.S. will be "going into the Human Rights Council... with no illusions about its past practice, with no illusions

It was part of President Barack Obama's larger vision of a "new era of engagement."

about some of the flaws that were there. But our intent is to work to improve the council and to work to help that council improve the status of human rights around the world."

In her announcement of the decision on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it was part of President Barack Obama's larger vision of a "new era of engagement." The U.S. will be working on "improving the U.N. human rights system to advance the vision of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights," she said.

In order to join the 47-member Human Rights Council, the U.S. will have to apply for one of three vacant seats allotted to the U.N.'s "Western Europe and Other States" bloc.

Reacting to the Clinton statement, former American Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said the U.S. presence on the council would "legitimize something that doesn't deserve legitimacy."

House Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said that the Human Rights Council "passed five separate resolutions condemning Israel and another calling for restrictions on free speech. Yet, it ignored real human rights abuses in Iran, Syria, Sudan, Cuba and other dictatorships." It was, she said, "yet another appalling display of anti-freedom, antidemocratic, anti-Israel bias." The Bush policy of staying off the council, she explained, was actually the best leverage the U.S. had for changing it.

'Emboldens Evil'

Involved in matters of transition as the announcement was made, both the former and new Israeli governments have thus far refrained from comment on the U.S. decision.

The U.S. branch of the Haredi-religious Agudath Israel movement called the Obama government's decision "ominous" and "unfortunate and unwelcome news." The U.N. Human Rights Council has become "an abettor of persecution, rather than the protector of the persecuted," the movement said 

The statement continued: "Its absurd obsession with, and constant condemnation of, Israel has made the Council nothing more than a breeding ground for anti-Semitic hatred and a rallying point for those who seek to legitimize that hatred."

Agudath Israel had praise for the Bush Administration, which "refused to be part of this charade. It made clear that appeasement of rogue nations does not promote peace and human rights - that it only emboldens evil."

In 2006, the Bush administration criticized the council for its "singular focus" on Israel and refused to apply for membership in the U.N. body.

Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, expressed similar concerns, observing that "the HRC has virtually ignored the major human rights violations of our times and instead has repeated the entrenched, institutionalized anti-Israeli bias of its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights.  The HRC has maintained a perennial special agenda item focused exclusively on Israel's human rights records and encourages outrageously one-sided reports by its special rapporteurs and the regularly held 'special sessions' on Israel. We hope the U.S. will be vociferous in its representations against the one-sided anti-Israel pronouncements and can be a force for change within the body."

Ironically, U.N. rules would preclude Israel, and only Israel, from joining the Human Rights Council altogether should the Jewish State itself ever seek to do so. The seats in U.N.'s key councils are allocated based on membership in one of five regional blocs. Due to Arab and Islamic opposition, Israel has been unable to take up its legitimate role as part of the Asia bloc.