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On September 14, 2009, the United States assumed its seat as a new member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Since the Council was formed in 2006, the United States has been one of its most vocal critics. Under President Bush and former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, the U.S. government took the position that the Council was full of human rights abusers and disproportionately criticized Israel. Now, after abstaining from membership until September of this year, the United States is looking to reengage with the Human Rights Council and reassert U.S. leadership on human rights issues at the UN.

According to critics, a major problem with the Council is a structural one. Council membership is geographically pre-determined. A set number of countries from certain regions of the world must be represented. This is a structural remnant of the Human Rights Commission, which the Council replaced. This requirement results in countries that have been accused of human rights abuses sitting on the very body designed to hold abusers accountable. For example, when Sudan sat on the Commission, it was one of the leading proponents of efforts to end investigations into human rights abuses in Darfur.

Critics also blame the geographical requirements for the Council’s perceived overemphasis on Israel and lack of action on other issues. Domination of the Council membership by African and Asian countries has resulted in only muted criticism of regional allies. Similarly, Arab countries on the Council have consistently voted together as a block to focus the attention of the Council on Israel. Since its creation, the Council has held five urgent meetings on Israel alone, while there have been in total only four such meetings about other country-specific issues. There has been only one on Darfur.

According to U.S. State Department legal advisor David Koh, membership on the council is an “experiment” designed to foster increased U.S. engagement with the UN and the Arab world. The Obama administration also hopes to reform the council from within.

By becoming a member, the United States aims to rebalance and refocus the Council’s efforts. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said that what the United States hopes to do is “push back against the hostile rhetoric and hostile actions that have been often directed by the Human Rights Council at Israel” and instead try to focus the Council “on the most egregious human rights abuses in places like Burma, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.”

The United States has already begun to implement this plan, particularly with regards to the situation in Sudan. Nearly immediately upon entering the 47-nation Council, the United States won a continuation of the investigation by the special rapporteur into human rights abuses in Sudan.

Under the leadership of Dr. Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, the United States has begun to push for reform, pledging to “stand [its] ground when the truth is at stake.” To that end, she encouraged fellow Council members to develop a “more strengthened and robust human rights mechanism.”

The United States is a late arrival to the Council. U.S. membership on the Council signals a renewed interest in working with the UN to address human rights abuses, but the Obama administration argues the Council itself needs to change. The case of Sudan is again illustrative. In 2011, there will be a national referendum on the secession of Southern Sudan, which most experts expect to pass. This will divide the country in two and negate existing peace agreements like the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which was intended to end the civil war and lay the parameters for peace. This could lead to escalated violence and more human rights abuses. In U.S. efforts to reform the Human Rights Council, time is of the essence.