The consensus among U.N. diplomats is that the U.S. appeared to have taken its reelection for granted, and failed to lobby for support to secure one of the three seats on the commission allocated to Western nations (it was ultimately shut out by France, Sweden and Austria). But many traditional U.S. supporters clearly withdrew their votes in order to signal their displeasure at the increasingly go-it-alone stance of the U.S. Their grievances are not confined to Washington's delinquent habits when it comes to paying its dues to the international body some $580 million in arrears is still tied up in Congress despite an agreement late last year to facilitate payment. The Europeans have been increasingly chagrined by Washington's tendency to ignore the international consensus on issues ranging from the use of land mines to the Kyoto climate change treaty.
They're also critical of what they see as Washington's tendency to politicize the issue of human rights, using annual resolutions at the commission to denounce China or Cuba when that conforms to U.S. foreign policy objectives but for the same reason voting alone in defense of Israel when that country is in the dock over its conduct.
The slapdown in Geneva, of course, is purely symbolic. Washington retains its dominant status in the international body, particularly because of its veto power in the all-important Security Council. The U.N. will remain an important theater of U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to dealing with international security crises such as Iraq and the Balkans. And it will certainly continue to play its leadership role in pressing the commission to adopt tough resolutions on human rights abuses in China and elsewhere. But the vote is clearly a blow to the prestige of a nation that sees itself as a global champion of human rights.
Washington's enemies were delighted by the vote. But the backlash against the U.N. that it will likely provoke on Capitol Hill may leave the Europeans questioning their wisdom in choosing this particular device to signal their frustration with Washington. After all, the Europeans want Washington to pay more attention to international forums; voting them off the Human Rights Commission is likely to have the opposite effect. That, of course, is just fine with America's foes. Which is why her allies may ultimately be left wondering whether they shot themselves in the foot by voting the U.S. off the Human Rights Commission.
With reporting by Stewart Stogel/United Nations