Let the U.N. Criticize Us

On Friday the United States will experience its first review by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The examination of its performance on human rights gives Americans an opportunity to assess their own country’s standing in promoting the liberties enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to find out what other U.N. members think of U.S. accomplishments in this arena.

Every U.N. member is subject to the review every four years whether the country is part of the Human Rights Council or not. Since the meeting is the first assessment for the United States, it will undoubtedly be watched with special interest. It will also be an important test of the council’s ability to conduct balanced and evenhanded reviews.

But there should be no illusions: The council is a highly political environment, and there is bound to be strong criticism of the United States on specific matters.

To prepare for the review, the United States — like all other countries — submitted a report to the council describing its own human rights practices.

The State Department submission, written after extensive public consultation, is frank in discussing the strengths and weaknesses in our country’s rights agenda. It clearly identifies America’s human rights pledges as “enduring” commitments: protecting individual freedoms, fairness and equality before the law, promoting a society with shared prosperity and a commitment to shared values.

It also expresses concern about problems still endemic in our society. These include discrimination or intolerance toward people based on their sexual orientation, or targeting women or members of Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian communities; discrimination in access to health care and affordable housing; unease about government surveillance programs; and a broken immigration system.

It is quite possible that the larger picture of U.S. performance and the U.N.’s work on human rights will be clouded in the council’s proceedings by statements as outrageous as those presented by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in his speeches at the General Assembly.

The United States has nothing to fear from such criticism. Our society is an open one in which issues are exposed to widespread public scrutiny, and we can be confident that nothing truthful will be said in Geneva that has not been said before in America.

As the council begins its review, we should bear in mind that the State Department has initiated the preparation of human rights reports on other countries. America should therefore welcome candid reports and discussions of our own rights record.

The United States has not always been amenable to the council’s ways. We refused to join the body during its first years of operation on the grounds that its design and mandate were deeply flawed.

The United Nations Association of the USA, which we head, and many other nongovernmental organizations advocated American participation in the council, so that the U.S. could help reform the institution from within. We were pleased when the Obama administration stood for election and won a seat on the council last year and assigned a full-time ambassador to Geneva to oversee the work there.

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September, President Obama devoted half of his speech to human rights and democratic values — an unprecedented amount of time on the subject in this setting. And in another reflection of how Washington values the review process, the U.S. report prominently recounts the role of W.E.B. DuBois’s work on behalf of African-American nongovernmental organizations when he appealed to the United Nations in the late 1940s for help in countering “pervasive discrimination.”

In considering the U.N.’s performance, we must also consider the valuable role of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which draws attention to the challenges inherent in advancing human rights and recommends solutions to overcome violations throughout the world. Much of the public dialogue in America has concentrated — not unreasonably — on the Human Rights Council’s preoccupation with Israel while it has disregarded serious rights violations in other countries.

The public debate about the council’s work tends, however, to ignore other country-specific resolutions and actions that represent major steps forward. In a follow-up to Ecuador’s review, for example, the country started collaborating with the U.N. to train its police force on human rights and to improve the prison system.

In many countries, the engagement of civil society organizations in readying and following through on the periodic review has given these organizations a larger stage on which to play a more active role in supporting human rights at the country level.

International treaties to protect and further human rights, along with the international bodies charged with monitoring them are essential to safeguarding universal standards that every nation should respect.

Through its serious participation in the review process, America is encouraging international scrutiny of all countries rights records, not just its own. For that reason alone, the U.S. should not be offended by the criticism that might ensue in reaction to its record.

As a society, we constantly acknowledge our shortcomings as well as our successes. Through our example, we encourage other governments to take this stance as well.

Thomas R. Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; William J. McDonough, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (They are co-chairmen of the United Nations Association of the USA); A. Edward Elmendorf, president and chief executive of UNA-USA.