Issue 129: Authoritarians as Human Rights Adjudicators

With the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights more than a month away, the traditional furor at its hypocrisies has come early.  From England’s Sunday Telegraph to the Miami Herald, editorial writers were outraged to learn that Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe were elected to a five-member panel that will make final decisions as to which human rights petitions get heard in closed proceedings before the full 53-member Commission.

The UN’s top human rights body is at its nadir.  In December the Commission was indicted by the UN itself for eroding credibility and professionalism and for being dominated by states whose interest is not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.  This absurd state of affairs was only underscored last week by the news that representatives of three despots, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe and the House of Saud, would be opining on the merits of human rights complaints.  But should we really care about who sits in Geneva on the “Working Group on Situations”?

Perhaps not.  For one thing, the panel’s role – misleading news reports notwithstanding – is nominal.  The real action at the Commission arises not in the closed Resolution 1503 hearings on individual petitions- proceedings shrouded in confidentiality and offering largely toothless remedies, all with the design of coddling defendant statesbut during the open debates and public voting on resolutions, upon which this panel has no influence.  Regardless of the Working Group on Situations, then, every state on the Commission can introduce resolutions on any human rights violation, while the remaining non-voting states, as well as hundreds of NGOs, are free to raise any issue in statements before the plenary.

For another thing, its hard to take the final panel of the 1503 process seriously when the panel of first instance, the “Working Group on Communications”, has long ago been discredited for its severe politicization, as well documented by Professor Philip Alston, himself a UN officeholder.  Made up of five members from the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights – a mostly marginal body of “independent experts” who tend to be neither independent nor expert – this jury performs the initial screening of petitions.  In the days when the Soviet Union dominated at the UN, the politics of the situation gave Moscows man the power to rule on all complaints dealing with the right to leave and return, an issue that happened to be of some sensitivity for the Kremlin.

Today, little has changed.  Even before this years complaints are examined by the ambassadors of Castro and Co., they will already have been screened by none other than Halima Warzazi of Morocco, Chair of the Working Group on Communications.   (With her are representatives from France and such beacons of liberty as China, Cuba and Russia).  Readers of this column will recall that at the opening address of the Sub-Commission in August, Madame Warzazi began her remarks by singularly blasting America, and ended by asking the audience to reflect on how Israel might remind them of Nazi Germany.

This came as no surprise to those who recall the events of September 1, 1988, when the Sub-Commission considered a resolution to censure Saddam for gassing the Kurds of Halabja.  Warzazi successfully blocked it by her “no action” motion – supported, it so happens, by the same Cuban, Alfonso Martinez, who now sits with her on the panel ruling on human rights complaints.  Finally, during this years Sub-Commission session, Warzazi declined to speak for the victims of Darfur, telling UN Watch that “Everyone is talking about Sudan”.  So much for the character of the 1503 procedures court of first jurisdiction.

With this record, then, one is tempted to simply ignore the goings-on of all 1503 panels and other Commission entities.  Yet there is no gainsaying that the election of a majority of repressive regimes to the Working Group on Situations illustrates the sickness within the Commission itself, the body that presides over the UN’s global human rights machinery, and obliges all who care about human rights to speak out.

Which is why the U.S. was right to issue its statement that “countries that routinely and systematically violate the rights of their citizens should not be selected to review the human rights performance of other countries.”  In citing “the inappropriate membership” of Havana and Harare, however, the State Departments omission of Riyadh was not accidental.  Washingtons caution might be attributed to reliance on its allys oil and strategic cooperation, but may also reflect a recognition of Saudi Arabias tentative step toward progress tomorrow, when citizens vote in the countrys first municipal elections in 40 years.

One must bear in mind, though, that all women are still denied suffrage; only 50% of the council seats will be decided by voting; and councilors will be limited to discussing roads, sewage and street lighting.  The desert dictatorships advance from the Paleolithic Age to the Chalcolithic is welcome, but hardly cause for celebration, nor, one hopes, grounds for immunity.

UN Watch