Add another issue to the list of Obama administration reversals from Bush policy: human rights. As part of Obama's "new era of engagement," the U.S. will seek a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council next month. But will U.S. membership make a difference?

That the Human Rights Council has mostly failed to achieve its stated goals is no secret. At its most recent session, the council voted to end its investigation of the Democratic Republic of Congo and passed a resolution against the "defamation of religions," which was a not-so-subtle censorship of religious freedom. Meanwhile, the body has yet to denounce Khartoum for its hand in the violence in Darfur.

The hope of some observers, however, is that the U.S. will be able to pull the listing body back toward the straight and narrow, to make it more effective and sincere.

"Active involvement by the U.S. will bring new energy and focus to the Human Rights Council's deliberations and actions, helping it become a more credible force for human rights promotion," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Along with Susan Rice's recent hints that the U.S. may attend the U.N.'s Durban II conference on racism later this month, the American turnaround is welcome.

"We are much better placed to be fighting for the principles we believe in – protection of human rights universally, fighting against the anti-Israel crap and for meaningful action on issues that we care about and ought to be the top of the agenda, things like Zimbabwe, Sudan [and] Burma – by leading and lending our voice from within," Rice said in a recent interview.

Still, the decision is a gamble. If Rice calls for reform and is able to alter the council's anti-Western bias, the move will be warranted. If her efforts fail, the U.S. may be seen as rubber-stamping the rights body's consistently ridiculous pronouncements, which would likely take some of the wind out of Obama administration efforts to redeem America's international stature.

About the author

  • David Lepeska

    David has served as U.N. correspondent for the newswire UPI and reported for several major newspapers, including the New York Daily News and Newsday. He was chief correspondent for the Kashmir Observer in Srinagar, India, and regularly contributes to the Economist, among other publications. Since 2007, David has reported for Devex News from Washington, New York, as well as South Asia.