The UN Human Rights Council: Not Fit for Purpose
Monday 15th September 2008
Contempt for the United Nations' professed values and institutions is no barrier to diplomatic grandeur at the organization's Turtle Bay headquarters. Quite the opposite, in fact. An increasing number of UN member states scorn its founding documents - the Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. These states, dubbed the â€˜The Abusers Club' by human rights activists, are drawn mainly from the developing, Arab, and Islamic worlds. They are co-ordinating their assault on human rights and political freedoms with increasing, and disturbing, success, say UN sources.
Certainly the Abusers Club has hijacked the new Geneva-based Human Rights Council. The Council was inaugurated in June 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. Even by UN standards the Commission was an embarrassment. In 2003, for example, the Commission was chaired by Najat al-Hajjaji, the Libyan ambassador. Predictably, draft resolutions critical of Sudan and Zimbabwe were defeated; and a resolution was passed effectively approving armed struggle in Palestine. Zimbabwe remained a member of the Commission, even while in 2005 Mugabe's thugs launched Operation Murambatsvina, which made 700,000 people homeless.
Proponents of the new 47-member Human Rights Council claimed it would put an end to such grotesqueries. The General Assembly resolution establishing the new organisation pledged that members must uphold the "highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and would be subject to "periodic review". The Council was raised to the status of a subsidiary body of the General Assembly. Members are elected by a majority vote of the General Assembly, with the aim of "mainstreaming" human rights into the United Nations system. This is especially important as this December marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This new electoral system was supposed to provide a means of keeping the worst human rights abusers off the Council. In practice it failed to take into account the growing anti-western sentiment at the United Nations, which regards almost all talk of human rights and political freedoms as a new form of imperialism. The membership of the Council alone affords evidence that â€˜The Abusers Club', is growing in power and influence.
Zimbabwe and Libya are off. But Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia and Saudi Arabia are on. Next year's members include Angola, Egypt, India and Qatar. The Council, like its predecessor, is obsessed with Israel, the most criticised and condemned UN member state in history.
Israel has been criticised 15 times since the Council was set up. Four resolutions passed at the June 2008 Human Rights Council meeting criticised Israel: Burma and Sudan got one each.
The Council's stands and resolutions are weakening rather than strengthening human rights at the UN, says one UN official. Meaningful political freedoms are marginalised in favour of nebulous social and economic rights. "Human rights at the UN are under threat because of the Council. It can co-ordinate proposals, it can dictate human rights policies. It's focusing on social and economic rights, and Israel and Palestine. The countries on the Council are much more organised than we expected, especially the Non-Aligned Group's proposals and resolutions."
In March the Council passed a resolution proposed by Islamic countries expressing concern about the defamation of religion, and urging governments to outlaw it. It was adopted 21-10, with the US, Canada and European Union states opposing. The text of the resolution refers to protecting all religions, but the only faith mentioned by name is Islam.
At the same time, varioius Arab and Islamic states are pushing to change the meaning of the term "Anti-Semitism" to argue that it includes prejudice against Arabs, as Arabs are also Semites. This is a subtle and dangerous sophistry, for the word now means exclusively anti-Jewish prejudice.
And while Libya is not a member of the Council, Najat al-Hajjaji is back. She is chairperson of the preparatory committee for the 2009 Durban Review Conference. Cuba is vice-chairperson, and other committee members include Iran and Pakistan. The conference will take place in Geneva. It will review the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, which turned into a hate-fest against Israel and Jews. The US and Israeli delegations walked out.
Already, Mrs al-Hajjaji is proving true to form, allowing Arab and Islamic countries to filibuster and use procedural devices to marginalise and exclude Jewish and pro-Israel NGOs. The Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy eventually withdrew its application for accreditation to â€˜Durban II' as the Review Conference is dubbed, after repeated and fervent objections from Iran. The Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign was accredited without any difficulties. Canada has already announced that it will boycott the Durban Review Conference, and the US, UK, France, Germany and Israel may follow.
All of which begs the question, does it matter what the UN Human Rights Council decides? After all, most of the world's population has never even heard of the body. But yes, it matters very much. In the best Orwellian tradition, the abusers club has hijacked the very language of human rights. At the same time, states such as Egypt and Iran argue with increasing confidence that rights such as free speech and free association are â€˜western' concepts irrelevant to the developing world. They claim it is â€˜politically biased' to single out regimes that abuse human rights, and that all problems in the middle east have Israel as a source.
The dark farce of the Council certainly matters to Abdel Kareem Soliman, an Egyptian blogger, jailed in 2007 for four years after a five minute trial, for insulting Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. It certainly matters to the family of Mohammed Hassanzadeh, a seventeen year old Iranian who was hanged at Sanandaj prison on June 10, in direct contravention of international law which forbids the execution of minors. And it should matter to us. The Durban Review Conference will cost at least $6.8 million, monies drawn from the UN budget, all of which is paid for by member states, meaning taxpayers. We are funding a hate-fest for human rights abusers to castigate the west. Why?
Adam LeBor is an author and journalist based in Budapest. His most recent book is Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide.