Monday, June 25, 2007

UN "Human Rights" update - The more things change ...

Over the years, all serious observers recognized that the UN's so-called Commission on Human Rights was becoming an increasingly sick joke. Governments with the worst records of human rights abuse were often the most eager to get seats on the Commission (for roughly the same reason that industries in the US try to colonize the federal bureaucracies supposedly in charge of regulating them), and they had little trouble doing so.

For example, in 2003 the African bloc in the UN, whose turn it was to pick the country heading the Human Rights Commission, chose Libya. Then in 2004, just as the campaign of mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur was reaching a crescendo, the government of Sudan was given a seat on the Human Rights Commission. And so on

Unsurprisingly, the Commission did fairly little to defend human rights or to condemn most governments guilty of repression or mass atrocities. Its permanent staff sometimes wrote useful reports on cases of crimes against humanity, but these reports often tended to get buried or ignored. However, it's not as though the Commission had nothing to do, since it did steadily churn out resolutions condemning one particular country, Israel. (Routinely, year after year, more than a quarter of all country-specific resolutions condemned Israel--which might seem a little disproportionate for one relatively tiny country in a world where human rights violations are unfortunately not scarce.)

In 2005-2006 a major effort was made to reform, renovate, and reorganize this body and its procedures, and at the beginning of 2006 it was reborn as the UN Human Rights Council. This reform was greeted with skepticism in some quarters and hope in others. What do the results look like so far?

=> The record of its first year was not promising. Here's a snippet from one check-up in August 2006 (UN "Human Rights" Council - Business as usual)
The UN created the 47-member Human Rights Council this year because the former 53-member Human Rights Commission had become virtually controlled by countries with poor human rights records that wanted to short-circuit criticism of their records.

Muslim countries and their backers also used their voting majority to disproportionately single out Israel for condemnation leading the council's architects to say the new body should refrain from staging sessions devoted to attacking one country.

Yet the council's only "country-specific" session so far last month saw member states vote 29-11 to deplore Israel's military operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
At the end of 2006, Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch offered an overall assessment whose tone is nicely captured by its title: "Don't Write It Off Yet"
The United Nations Human Rights Council was former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dream child: a new, stronger institution to replace the much-maligned Commission on Human Rights, where human rights would be treated as the UN’s “third pillar” along with security and development.

But the new council has had a rocky first year [....] In its first year, the council shied away from taking action on most human rights crises, dropped its scrutiny of Iran and Uzbekistan, and managed to condemn Israel’s human rights record without addressing violations by Hezbollah and Palestinian armed groups.

That disappointing record, however, should spur concerned governments into greater engagement rather than to write the council off. [....]

The council has the potential to be far more effective than the commission – if governments that care about human rights do all they can to make it so. The council’s failings can be blamed not only on the minority of members with troubling records, but also the poor performance of a broader group of states with a professed commitment to human rights. [....]

The Human Rights Council has a long way to go before it fulfills the promise that led to its creation, but that should inspire stronger action, not more hand-wringing.
=>So now we are a little more than half-way through the Council's second year. Has there been any improvement? Nothing noticeable.

In fact, remarkably enough, things seem to be getting even worse in some respects than they were with the old, unreformed Human Rights Commission. A report by Jackson Diehl in today's Washington Post (also cited by David Hirsh at Engage) pulls together some of the bad news. Some highlights:
Where does the global human rights movement stand in the seventh year of the 21st century? If the first year of the United Nations Human Rights Council is any indication, it's grown sick and cynical -- partly because of the fecklessness and flexible morality of some of the very governments and groups that claim to be most committed to democratic values.

At a session in Geneva last week, the council -- established a year ago in an attempt to reform the U.N. Human Rights Commission -- listened to reports by special envoys appointed by its predecessor condemning the governments of Cuba and Belarus. It then abolished the jobs of both "rapporteurs" in a post-midnight maneuver orchestrated by its chairman, who announced a "consensus" in spite of loud objections by the ambassador from Canada that there was no such accord.

While ending the scrutiny of those dictatorships, the council chose to establish one permanent and special agenda item: the "human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories." In other words, Israel (or "Palestine," in the council's terminology), alone among the nations of the world, will be subjected to continual and open-ended examination. [JW: Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon felt compelled to criticize this decision "to single out only one specific regional item given the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations throughout the world"--though he was too diplomatic to actually mention the word "Israel".] That's in keeping with the record of the council's first year: Eleven resolutions were directed at the Jewish state. None criticized any other government. [....]

The old human rights commission, which was disparaged by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan for casting "a shadow on the United Nations system as a whole," frequently issued unbalanced condemnations of Israel but also typically adopted half a dozen resolutions a year aimed at the worst human rights abusers. For the new council, Israel is the only target. Eighteen of the 19 states dubbed "the worst of the worst" by the monitoring group Freedom House (Israel is not on the list) were ignored by the council in its first year. One mission was dispatched to examine the situation in Darfur. When it returned with a report criticizing the Sudanese government, the council refused to endorse it or accept its recommendations. [Etc.]
I think a few of Diehl's comments about Human Rights Watch toward the end of his piece may be a little too harsh, since that's a fine and principled organization trying to deal with a bad situation as constructively as it can. And, fortunately, "the global human rights movement" goes well beyond the UN Human Rights Council. But the basic picture presented here is, alas, all too clear. When it comes to "human rights" at the UN, the more things change, the more they stay the same--or get worse.

--Jeff Weintraub
=========================
Washington Post
Monday, June 25, 2007 (Page A19)
A Shadow on the Human Rights Movement
By Jackson Diehl

Where does the global human rights movement stand in the seventh year of the 21st century? If the first year of the United Nations Human Rights Council is any indication, it's grown sick and cynical -- partly because of the fecklessness and flexible morality of some of the very governments and groups that claim to be most committed to democratic values.

At a session in Geneva last week, the council -- established a year ago in an attempt to reform the U.N. Human Rights Commission -- listened to reports by special envoys appointed by its predecessor condemning the governments of Cuba and Belarus. It then abolished the jobs of both "rapporteurs" in a post-midnight maneuver orchestrated by its chairman, who announced a "consensus" in spite of loud objections by the ambassador from Canada that there was no such accord.

While ending the scrutiny of those dictatorships, the council chose to establish one permanent and special agenda item: the "human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories." In other words, Israel (or "Palestine," in the council's terminology), alone among the nations of the world, will be subjected to continual and open-ended examination. That's in keeping with the record of the council's first year: Eleven resolutions were directed at the Jewish state. None criticized any other government.

Genocide in Sudan, child slavery and religious persecution in China, mass repression in Zimbabwe and Burma, state-sponsored murder in Syria and Russia -- and, for that matter, suicide bombings by Arab terrorist movements -- will not receive systematic attention from the world body charged with monitoring human rights. That is reserved only for Israel, a democratic country that has been guilty of human rights violations but also has been under sustained assault from terrorists and governments openly committed to its extinction.

The old human rights commission, which was disparaged by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan for casting "a shadow on the United Nations system as a whole," frequently issued unbalanced condemnations of Israel but also typically adopted half a dozen resolutions a year aimed at the worst human rights abusers. For the new council, Israel is the only target. Eighteen of the 19 states dubbed "the worst of the worst" by the monitoring group Freedom House (Israel is not on the list) were ignored by the council in its first year. One mission was dispatched to examine the situation in Darfur. When it returned with a report criticizing the Sudanese government, the council refused to endorse it or accept its recommendations.

The regime of Gen. Omar al-Bashir, which is responsible for at least 200,000 deaths in Darfur, didn't just escape any censure. Sudan was a co-sponsor on behalf of the Arab League of the latest condemnations of Israel, adopted last week.

This record is far darker than Kofi Annan's "shadow." You'd think it would be intolerable to the democratic states that sit on the council. Sadly, it's not. Several of them -- India, South Africa, Indonesia -- have regularly supported the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement in their assaults on Israel and defense of Cuba, Belarus and Sudan. The council's chairman, who rammed through last week's decisions without a vote, is a diplomat from Mexico.

The European Union includes countries holding eight of the council's 47 seats. It has made no serious effort to focus the council's attention on the world's worst human rights violators. According to a report by the independent group UN Watch, the European Union "has for the most part abandoned initiating any country-specific resolutions." At one point before last week's meeting, the European Union threatened to quit the council, effectively killing it. Yet when the meeting ended, Europe's representative, Ambassador Michael Steiner of Germany, said that while the package of procedural decisions singling out Israel "is certainly not ideal . . . we have a basis we can work with."

What about Western human rights groups -- surely they cannot accept such a travesty of human rights advocacy? In fact, they can. While critical of the council, New York-based Human Rights Watch said its procedural decisions "lay a foundation for its future work." Global advocacy director Peggy Hicks told me that the council's focus on Israel was in part appropriate, because of last year's war in Lebanon, and was in part caused by Israel itself, because of its refusal to cooperate with missions the council dispatched. (Sudan also refused to cooperate but was not rebuked.) Hicks said she counted only nine condemnations, not 11.

Never mind how you count them: Is there a point at which a vicious and unfounded campaign to delegitimize one country -- which happens to be populated mostly by Jews -- makes it unconscionable to collaborate with the body that conducts it? "That could happen, but I don't think we're anywhere near there," Hicks said.

That's the human rights movement, seven years into a century that's off to a bad start.

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