The Bush administration — which disdained the United Nations only slightly more than it disdained the hard work of diplomacy — chose to boycott the United Nations’ highly dysfunctional Human Rights Council. The Obama administration has decided to run for a seat on it. That may be the best chance to shape up this international embarrassment, but it won’t be easy.

The council frequently and unsparingly condemns Israel, but when it comes to Sudan’s genocide in Darfur or the murderous crimes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, it has cynically and shamefully pulled its punches. Last month, it endorsed an ill-considered Pakistani resolution against defaming religions that could easily be used to justify censorship and official persecution of unbelievers.

The council’s weakness is part of a larger problem at the United Nations. Rather than risk criticism of their own policies, members all too willingly enable each other’s excesses — and call it respect for national sovereignty. And like too many other United Nations bodies, the council apportions membership on the basis of regional bloc politics, not merit or performance. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Cuba — all current members — sit in judgment of others’ human rights performance, while routinely abusing the rights of their own people.

Making the council credible will require countries that are genuinely committed to human rights to stand up to the relatively small number of egregious violators and the much larger group that gives them cover. That will not always be easy for Washington since some chronic abusers — Egypt and Pakistan come to mind — are allies or strategic partners of the United States.

Washington will surely be elected next month, since it will be running uncontested for a seat assigned to the Western bloc. Membership will not be enough. Successful diplomacy rests on forging compromises and building consensus. But when quiet diplomacy fails, as it often will, the United States must raise its own voice, unequivocally, on behalf of repression’s voiceless victims.