WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Wednesday strongly defended America's membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council, despite its anti-Israel bias and its roster of repressive nations, arguing that U.S. presence has had a positive influence.
Susan Rice faced biting criticism from Republicans on a House panel about U.S. involvement in the 47-nation, Geneva-based council as well as membership in the United Nations itself. House GOP lawmakers emboldened by their newfound majority are determined to limit the U.S. role in the world body, arguing that American tax dollars shouldn't be wasted on an organization in desperate need of reform.
Much of the congressional fury centers on the Human Rights Council, which includes China, Cuba, Russia and most recently, Libya.
President George W. Bush's administration avoided the council, citing its bias against Israel and scores of human rights violations that were ignored. The Obama administration said it would be better to be a member than to remain on the sidelines, and won a seat on the council. The administration said last week it would seek a new term.
"We're supposed to pretend that it's normal, it's okay that we have a council on human rights made up of some of the most egregious human rights violators on the planet and we're supposed to send hard-earned taxpayer money," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., complained to Rice.
"We're not pretending anything. We're very clear," Rice answered. "We'd rather be in there and call foul when that is appropriate and stand up for the principles and values that Americans hold dear and make important progress where progress can be made."
As a council member, Rice said the U.S. pressed the body to deal with human rights emergencies in the Ivory Coast, ensured a special expert for Sudan, pressed for Libya's suspension and forced Iran to withdraw its candidacy.
"All that has happened in the last two years with U.S. participation and U.S. leadership," Rice told the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
The council has come under renewed scrutiny after the author of a report critical of Israel backtracked on his claims that it had intentionally targeted civilians and was guilty of war crimes. The report was written by South African jurist Richard Goldstone.
"I'm not sure it can be amended," Rice said of the report. "What we want to see is for it to disappear and no longer be a subject of debate in the Human Rights Council."
Rice said the United States would continue to work to end the anti-Israel bias in the council.
Diaz-Balart suggested the U.S. walk away from the United Nations and try to strengthen another pro-democracy organization.
"The answer is not simply to turn our back and walk," Rice said. "Let's get in there and get the good things that we can."
The top diplomat is likely to face even tougher questions on Thursday when she testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That panel's chairwoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is putting together legislation that would shift U.S. payments to the U.N. from compulsory to voluntary and bar the U.S. from seeking a seat on the Human Rights Council. Ros-Lehtinen had a similar measure that didn't go far in the Democratic-controlled House last year. She is likely to introduce a new bill next week.
House Republicans cut the budget request for the U.N. from $1.6 billion to $1.52 billion in the current fiscal year, and likely will target Obama's request for next year's budget.
The frustration with the U.N. wasn't limited to Republicans.
Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee, said that while the U.N. is critical in maintaining international peace and security, "Too often, the U.N. is a reflection of the lowest common denominator rather than the best and brightest on the international stage." She said it spends too much time focused on Israel and biased resolutions.
Rice's testimony came as Israeli President Shimon Peres met with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill. Peres said he thanked lawmakers for their bipartisan support the last 62 years, "morally, politically and otherwise."
Associated Press writer Jim Abrams contributed to this report.