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Understandable cold shoulder at U.N.

An accumulation of resentments against the United States and apparent lack of preparation by the Bush administration led to the May 3 vote that denied America a seat on the 53-member United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

The administration has tried to demean the vote by labeling the commission as one beholden now to the likes of Libya and Sudan. That is not entirely true, of course. Nor was the vote entirely unjustified, nor should it have come as a total surprise.

The nations of the Earth have a right to be annoyed at the way in which the United States has treated the United Nations. While the United States has ratified some of the U.N. covenants on human rights, we have essentially nullified those covenants by insisting on reservations that, in essence, deny any new commitment by the United States to engage in conduct required by the United Nations.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors the compliance of signatory nations with the Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, has sharply rebuked the United States for its reservations. The committee claims the provisions violate the letter and the spirit of the U.N. Covenants on Political Rights.

The United States has defied the United Nations in other ways. It unilaterally walked out of the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, because of alleged mismanagement. In 1999 the United States refused to ratify the International Criminal Commission, although President Clinton signed it in his last days in office. The United States has refused to ratify the Covenant on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Covenant on the Rights of the Child. Similarly the United States refused to sign on to the Law of the Sea Treaty or to join the ban on land mines.

The United States has also refused to send personnel to the 18 United Nations peacekeeping missions all around the world.

It is not lost on other members, either, that the United States sought to use the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to beat up on communist countries and especially annoyed human rights activists the world over during the Reagan years by seeking to turn the commission into a redbaiting forum.

Bush has not made many friends on the commission in recent months with his proposal to abdicate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and build the anti-missile shield or Star Wars.

These are some of the reasons why certain members of the United Nations used their secret ballot to vote the United States off the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The vote may also have been triggered by the ineptitude of American diplomats associated with the United Nations.

According to former U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, who once was a delegate to the commission, the Bush administration failed to do the politicking necessary to ensure the vote. “This should have been anticipated, and this should have been prepared for,” she said. “We should not have lost the vote.”

The action in Geneva, however, may also have adverse consequences for the United Nations. Members of Congress who want no abridgements of America’s sovereignty can now fulminate that the United Nations is so anti-American that the United States should not pay its dues. The amount that had come due was almost a billion dollars. About half has been paid, but Congress is threatening to withhold $244 million because of the loss of that seat. The factions that promote American isolationism may once again issue propaganda against any entangling alliances.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has had a long and useful history. It does not have the legal power to punish nations, but for more than 50 years it has scolded countries for their violations of human rights -- often with salutary results.

Will America’s surprise humiliation at being voted off the commission be a wake-up call? It seems unlikely but possible. The world has heard that a significant number of nations feel that the United States should not continue as a member of the world’s most important organization in the area of human rights.

Unwelcome truths about our conduct come to all of us in strange and unpredictable ways. Perhaps the United States will modify its arrogance and seek to be a good neighbor in the family of nations. If that happens, the human rights commission vote, however jarring, will have served some positive purpose.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001