Issue 122: U.S. Senate Urges Suspension of Sudan from UN Commission on Human Rights

The United States Senate recently adopted a unanimous resolution (S.Con.Res. 137) calling upon the State Department to demand the immediate suspension of Sudan from the UN Commission on Human Rights.  The suspension would be in effect until Sudan meets all of its obligations as determined under Security Council resolutions.  And in the event that the Darfur atrocities are determined by the UN to amount to genocide, the Senate resolution demands Sudan’s full removal from the Commission.

Analysis:  The resolution is non-binding and went virtually unnoticed by the media.  Which may be just as well, given that the procedures contemplated may not even exist.  Still, the Senate’s call to suspend Sudan raises issues worthy of careful consideration by those seeking to improve the UN’s handling of human rights.

It is clear that the Senate was primarily interested in making a statement, one that would rightly pressure Sudan to end its widespread killings.  The bi-partisan resolution, accompanied by powerful speeches from both Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist and Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, comes within the context of Washington’s leadership role in the diplomatic campaign to halt the atrocities as well as its significant relief efforts for Darfurs victims.

It is less clear, however, whether anyone on Capitol Hill ever really thought this through.  For one thing, the remedy called for is essentially unavailable if not legally, then politically.

States are elected for rotating terms to the Commission on Human Rights by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), according to regional allocations.  Suspension or removal of a state from the Commission is nowhere mentioned in ECOSOC’s Rules of Procedure, and has no precedent.  On the other hand, Rule 24 does grant ECOSOC a broad power to define the composition of the Commission, suggesting there is nothing to prohibit a state from requesting a special session to challenge Sudan’s membership. Legally, then, suspension might be achievable.

Politically, however, it is highly unlikely.  Since the U.S. has yet to request a special session of the Commission on Human Rights regarding Sudan – despite its April 23 promise to do exactly that – it would seem strange for it to request one of ECOSOC, which, despite being the Commissions parent body, carries a decidedly lower profile in public consciousness. Yet even if it were feasible to oust Sudan from the Commission, would this be a good idea?  Our instinct says yes.  After all, how can a body associated with human rights be  governed by a state responsible for the worlds most appalling human rights violations?  Sudan’s membership – which was renewed by ECOSOC in May, prompting the U.S. representative to walk out in protest – sullies the Commission if not the very concept of human rights.

However, one needs to consider unintended consequences.  If we are to adopt the proposition that Sudan must be expelled because scoundrels cannot sit on a body dedicated to virtue, by implication we risk turning all surviving members into saints.  Members such as Saudi Arabia, which treats women as chattel;  Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe brings oppression and starvation to a country once known for its bounty; China, which persecutes religious minorities; or Egypt, which imprisons dissidents for exposing its fraudulent elections, promotes anti-Semitism in its state-run media, and tortures homosexuals.  Will the U.S. and its democratic allies seek their suspension, and others like them, too?

Since the answer is no, perhaps we are better simply to acknowledge that the Commission on Human Rights, a once-proud institution, has been taken over by abuser regimes seeking to defend each other from censure – and that membership tells nothing of a country’s record, only of its success in the latest round of UN horse-trading.

Or, of course, we could attempt real reform of the Commission.  But that cannot be achieved on an ad hoc basis, however well-intentioned.  Interesting proposals exist. One idea is to require threshold criteria for membership in the Commission, such as ratification of the main human rights treaties; prompt reporting to UN human rights bodies; and issuing open invitations to UN human rights investigators.  Further, states recently condemned by the Commission for serious rights violations would be disqualified.  Sergio Vieira de Mello, the late High Commissioner for Human Rights, had stressed the need for a code of guidelines for membership of the Commission, and a code of conduct for serving members.  The more formal the criteria, the easier to enforce.

These and other proposals for UN reform require thorough debate by the international community.  Saving the victims of Sudan’s ethnic cleansing requires immediate action.

UN Watch