In a move that has stunned and angered the Bush administration, Congress and Beltway pundits, the United Nations' 53-member Economic and Social Commission voted against a continued US presence at the UN Human Rights Commission and its International Narcotics Control Board.
Removal of the US from the human rights commission has practical effects. Now the US will no longer be able to sponsor resolutions critical of its enemies, as it has annually done with China and Cuba. The loss of the drug board seat, however, is primarily, though not entirely, symbolic. The board monitors international compliance with the UN's global drug prohibition regime. In its most recent move on the board, the US worried aloud about the increasing popularity of Viagra, steroids, and diet pills in the US and Western Europe.
In both cases, the US simply did not garner the votes to win. Despite the apparent belief of some US lawmakers that the US has a divine right to sit on the commissions, the member states did not agree. At the human rights commission, the US came in fourth out of four candidates for the three seats allocated to Western Europe and North America. France, Austria and Sweden were selected for those seats. At the drug board, US Ambassador Herbert Okun, who was seeking a third term, came in behind the seven countries that were elected to the board. In its new configuration, the drug board will include the Netherlands, France and Austria, but not the United States.
In both cases, the State Department said it thought US election to the commissions was a done deal. But UN diplomats told reporters the US had failed to lobby sufficiently to shore up support for its election. They also pointed to European irritation with the Bush administration on issues ranging from Bush's proposed new missile defense system and the American reluctance to pay its UN dues to US failure to back the Kyoto agreement on global warming, an international criminal court and the nuclear test ban treaty. Some mentioned being fed up with "heavy handed" lobbying by former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke.
In seeking to explain the votes, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told reporters on Monday that "member states, particularly those who have been strongly supportive of an international criminal court, have been disappointed by the US not coming on board. I can understand the frustration, shock, and surprise," said Annan. "This was a decision by the member states. It is one of the vagaries of democracy."
A stunned State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, told a Monday press conference "there's something happening out there. Clearly, I think it's fair to speculate there may be issues related to how we handle ourselves, how we position."
Secretary of State Powell suggested that the votes were retaliation because "we left a little blood on the floor" in human rights votes regarding Cuba, China, and the Palestinians. But it was the US, which habitually used the human rights commission as a bully pulpit to harangue its political enemies, that was left bleeding last week. With perspective increasing in direct proportion to distance from Washington, member states may have reacted to the hypocrisy of a country that berates Cuba for holding a handful of political prisoners while it is engaged in a de facto alliance with the hemisphere's most efficient mass murderers, the Colombian paramilitaries.
The view was different on Capitol Hill. "This is an affront more to the whole notion of international human rights than it is to us for a nation," grumbled House Majority leader Dick Armey (R-TX), not generally known for his human rights activism.
A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) echoed Armey's gripes. "The United Nations stuck their finger in our eye. There is a danger that the United Nations made a serious mistake here, and there will be consequences," said John Freehey.
The most immediate consequence is that Congress is threatening to continue to be a deadbeat on back dues owed the UN. The House voted late this week to okay a partial payment of the $582 million the US owes the global body, but will hold $244 million hostage until it manages to regain seats on the two boards.
Some practical effects of the INCB ouster could be indirectly felt around the globe. In Australia, US-led INCB pressure has reportedly played a role in scuttling long-planned heroin maintenance trial programs. (For background information see http://www.drcnet.org/wol/119.html#injectingrooms and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/004.html#blackmail in our archives.) Perhaps a new INCB less dominated by US drug war ideology will be less interventionist as nations experiment with new drug policies.