By Ira Rifkin
In 1984, Wendy’s introduced a TV commercial that featured three elderly women lifting the top half of an oversized hamburger bun meant to represent its competitors’ claims of fast-food superiority. Inside, they discover a minuscule round of chopped meat. One of the three, looking every which way with a befuddled but-oh-so-endearing look on her face, blurts out, “Where’s the beef?”
The rest, as they say, is history. Overnight, “where’s the beef?” became a pop culture catchphrase signaling the unmasking of false claims. Beef equals truth; no beef means it’s not as advertised. It was bumper-sticker perfect. So perfect that Walter Mondale adopted it as his own to ridicule rival Gary Hart during that year’s Democratic primary campaign.
Now the time has come to lift the bun on the UN Human Rights Council, as egregious a case of false advertising as ever there was one. Reversing a Bush administration policy, the White House announced Tuesday that it will seek a seat on the council when the UN General Assembly votes on the matter in May. It’s a risky decision, one that could easily end in embarrassing failure. That would delight President Obama’s critics who say he’s a babe in the woods when it comes to dealing with the world’s many despots. Still, it’s a risk worth taking with eyes wide open.
As Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an NGO affiliated with the American Jewish Committee and which is highly critical of the council, wrote in support of the White House decision: “Whether we like it or not, however, the council is a permanent forum whose resolutions, translated into every language, exercise global influence on hearts and minds.”
Boycotting the council has gained nothing. Better for the U.S. to seek to influence from within than continue to stand apart while the council, dominated as it is by such human rights-repressing nations as Saudi Arabia and China and their complicit allies in Asia and Africa, continues to make a mockery of its advertised purpose.
Make no mistake; Obama’s chances for success are slim. Just last week the commission approved a resolution urging nations to take legal steps to limit criticism of religion. Not members of persecuted religious minorities, but the very idea of religion itself and one in particular. Islam was singled out by name as the religion most in need of official protection.
This includes passing laws to punish those deemed to cause offense to Muslim beliefs. Be on notice questioning academics, artists, journalists, atheists, secular Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others. The point is to quash Western-style freedom of speech in an age of international terrorism, the vast majority of which is, undeniably, being carried out by Muslims claiming to act in the name of Islam. What better way for Muslim nations to deflect the spotlight from their own responsibility for growing terrorists than to outlaw inquiry?
Council resolutions are nonbinding, although in certain parts of the world they are, as Neuer noted, treated as if they carry great moral weight. That is particularly the case in nations were Israel is reviled. Twenty-six of the 33 country-specific council resolutions passed since its creation in 2006 have condemned Israel, a favorite council target by virtue of its audacity to exist. North Korea has been condemned once. Myanmar (Burma) four times. Zimbabwe never.
The council is also the lead planning body for the UN’s upcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances – a process chaired by of all nations Libya. The U.S. still has not decided whether it will attend the conference, pending completion of its draft final communiqué. The last time the conference was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, the final document was hysterical in its blaming the West and, of course, Israel, for all the world’s problems.
Given this record, why bother? Unlike the UN Security Council, Washington will have no veto; its vote will be equal to the council’s other 46 members and only seven seats overall are reserved for Western nations. But by sticking to truth in advertising, by repeatedly demanding that the council shed light on the world’s true human rights violators – regardless of their religion or economic sway – the U.S. may just be a moderating force.
And that would be victory enough. Effecting change requires taking calculated risks. The UN Human Rights Council is worth that risk.
Ira Rifkin is the author of “Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval” (SkyLight Paths). He was formerly a national correspondent for Religion News Service, news director for Beliefnet.com, and a Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report.