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With broad reform of the world body stalled, the U.N. General Assembly voted earlier this month to approve a new Human Rights Council. While this is only a first step, it does provide hope for U.N. reform after all. The old Human Rights Commission was an egregious sore, more notable for its human-rights failures than its successes. Its replacement is not perfect, but it is a marked improvement and may yet fulfill the hopes of human-rights supporters — and U.N. advocates — around the world.

The United Nations established the Human Rights Commission 60 years ago to ensure that citizens enjoyed the freedoms enshrined in the U.N. Charter and other international treaties and conventions. Over time, however, the 53-member commission was noted more for its efforts to block international scrutiny of human-rights violations than its readiness to criticize and condemn them. Seats were allocated by region.

As a result, commission members often included the governments with horrific human-rights records, and they joined together to neutralize the commission. Indeed, the Human Rights Commission subverted the very principles it was designed to uphold by shielding the worst offenders and focusing its attention on other countries for political purposes.

This sorry record made reform of the Human Rights Commission, proposed last year by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a test case for the credibility of the U.N. as a whole. Extensive and hard-fought negotiations yielded the proposal adopted by the General Assembly. The new council will have 47 members.

Although seats on the panel will still be distributed according to region, candidates are to be voted on individually rather than as part of a regional group. Each member’s human-rights record will be subject to periodic review, and membership can be suspended with a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly if a member commits or allows human-rights abuses. Members will serve a three-year term and will be eligible for no more than two consecutive terms. More significantly, the new council will be able to intervene in a timely manner during a human-rights crisis and will have a year-round presence with three meetings throughout the year, rather than once annually at present.

The council was approved by a vote of 170-4 with three abstentions. Remarkably, the United States was among the four countries that voted against the reform. Japan voted in favor.

The U.S. vote may seem like a surprise given the primacy Washington has given human rights in its foreign policy. But the U.S. position reflects unease with the new proposal, not indifference to the issue. The U.S. wanted a body that was smaller and a membership that was elected by a two-thirds vote as required in Mr. Annan’s original proposal, rather than by an absolute majority in the General Assembly.

As Mr. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. explained, “we did not have sufficient confidence in this text to able to say the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor.” He went on to say that human-rights victims should not be satisfied with “good enough,” “compromise” and “all we could do.”

The U.S. position may be emotionally gratifying but it ignores diplomatic reality. Multilateral organizations are created by compromise. Failure to accept that starting point would only ensure that no new institution is agreed. In this case, to strive for perfect is the enemy of the good. The smaller organization, the review of members’ human-rights practices and the year-round operation of the council are all improvements over its predecessor. Other critics who share U.S. concerns concede that re-opening negotiations on the body would allow other governments that are hostile to the protection of human rights in general a chance to gut the council.

The question now is whether U.N. member governments will use this new instrument as it is designed. The U.S. has signaled that it is ready to do its part. Mr. Bolton has pledged to “work cooperatively” to strengthen the new council. That is positive, but other countries must also share the desire to strengthen human-rights protections for the world’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens. The worst human-rights offenders invariably promise to make the world pay for holding them to account. Some governments use that excuse — the prospect of a deterioration in relations — to shy away from scrutiny and criticism. Yet the shrillness of that complaint is proof that international censure matters.

The newly reformed Human Rights Council is not perfect — no one should have expected as much — but it does hold out hope that seriously protecting human rights will again be a focus of diplomacy and that the U.N. will play a real role in that process.

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