The UN and human rights failures

August 2006. Although hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel had been raging for nearly a month, both sides waited for a green light from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) special session on 3 August in Malaysia before demanding an United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) special session on Lebanon. There was no debate, elaboration or explanation. The special session represented a series of monologues and declamations in complete isolation from the outside world. The passed resolution condemned Israel unilaterally without the least reference to Hezbollah attacks on civilian targets in northern Israel. Only a paragraph added by Pakistan to the initial draft urged all the parties involved to respect the rules of international humanitarian law.

This was not the end of the story. The HRC session was held the same day that the Security Council (SC) was adopting the resolution 1701 calling for a cessation of hostilities (in a glaring breach of Article 12 of the UN Charter, which forbids the GA to make recommendations w.r.t. a dispute at hand while the SC is holding a session about that dispute).

Issues related to human rights have historically been (mis)interpreted and disregarded during the entire human history, but the WW2 was the last straw. The idea, shortly after the inception of the UN, to establish an international body, United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), responsible for monitoring and reporting on human rights issues prompted all the nations assembled in 1948 for a GA session to sign a founding text, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguably the Most Translated Document in the world. One of its main architects, the French jurist René Cassin, had to fight for the declaration to be “universal “and not just “international.” He thought that the suffering of victims is the same everywhere. The Declaration was drafted not only by European jurists but also a Lebanese diplomat, a Chilean, and a Chinese academic, Peng-chun Chang.

Ever since its creation, the Commission has seen a mounting criticism not only for its obtusely bureaucratic practices but also for the composition of its membership. In particular, several of its member countries (Sudan, Saudi Arabia, PRC, Pakistan, Vietnam) themselves had dubious human rights records, including states whose representatives have been elected to chair the commission (Lybia in 2003). Another criticism was that the Commission did not engage in constructive discussion of human rights issues, but was a forum for politically selective finger-pointing and criticism. The desire of states with problematic human rights records to be elected to the Commission was viewed largely as a way to defend themselves from such attacks.

In 2005, Kofi Annan admitted that the commission has “cast a shadow on the reputation of the UN system as a whole.

There was also the problem of the exploitation and sexual abuse of refugees. It was bad enough that UN “peacekeepers” were notoriously unable to protect women in UN camps in western Sudan. It was even more deplorable that UN peacekeepers themselves were part of the problem. In 2004, Kofi Annan finally admitted that there were 150 allegations of abuse by UN peacekeepers and staff in the DR Congo, including UN military and civilian personnel from Nepal, Tunisia, South Africa, Pakistan, and France. The victims were defenseless refugees — many of them children — already brutalized by years of civil strife and war.

Finally, UN attitude toward some of the most important defenders of human rights – the charities and faith-based groups – might seem weird to the uninformed. Most of the UN’s favorite NGOs use international rulings to overturn democratic protections in their home countries. The UN vision of civil society, in other words, seems to be a penumbra of activist groups that simply endorse its agenda of centralized economies, large welfare states, and massive social engineering.  Many function simply as front groups for despotic and totalitarian governments such as Cuba and Saudi Arabia.  On the other hand, organizations that work to assist AIDS orphans, eradicate human trafficking, curb prostitution, or defend religious liberty don’t get much air time.

The UNHRC was established in 2006 to replace the discredited UNCHR. Despite minimal safeguards against capture of the HRC by human rights abusers, HRC supporters, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, were quick to declare that the new body represented the “dawn of a new era” in promoting human rights in the UN. Noteworthy to mention that the US was one of only four countries that voted against the GA resolution that created the Council.

But the hopes placed in the UN’s new guard dog were quickly dashed. When the first council was elected in May 2006, its members included countries in which the death penalty, torture, impunity, arbitrary detention and denial of basic rights seem to be essential components of their societies. The UN put Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Nigeria and Russia in charge of defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The machinery was still brand new but it was already beginning to squeak. Some of teh other inadequacies and short-sighted decisions concerning the creation, membership and structure of the Council included:

  • The Council has no criteria for membership other than geographical representation.
  • The Council has no criteria for membership other than geographical representation.
  • The resolution set a higher bar to suspend a HRC member—a vote of two-thirds of the General Assembly—than the simple majority necessary to win a seat.
  • The Council is only marginally smaller than the Commission, from 53 members to 47.
  • While the Council is charged with conducting a universal periodic review, the conclusions of the review would not prevent those countries found complicit in human rights violations from participating in the Council.

In less than two years, the council has terminated the mandates of its independent experts – only UN officials who escape the dictates of a government – in charge of monitoring the situation in Cuba, Belarus and even DR Congo, where the recent years have witnessed mass killings and flood of refugees. The Council also refused to appoint an expert for Turkmenistan, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

In the meantime, China, Uzbekistan, Russia and others have been maneuvering behind the scenes and struck deals to ensure that their and their allies’ interests would be safeguarded. Votes are not cast according to the seriousness of the situation in a country but according to the possible advantages that the country or its allies can offer in return. China is the champion in this game. Using its enormous economic power, it ensures that it is systematically supported by countries on whom it lavishes loans, subsidies and other material and economic advantages.

Meant to defend the universality of values, the UNHRC has so far tackled human rights issues, even the most appalling of violations, in a little better than a condemnable manner.