Issue 139: Analysis and Commentary from UN Watch in Geneva

Defining Decisions

In the next month the United Nations, still tottering after its annus scandalis, faces two consequential decisions that will test the organization’s ability to implement its founding purpose to protect human rights and international peace.

First, the moral authority of the UN will be at stake when it decides whether and how to reform its human rights commission—an institution of global symbolic import that, as Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself now concedes, has become a safe haven for notorious regimes seeking to shield their records of abuse. Second, the strategic relevance of the organization will be won or lost on whether it acts to defend international peace and security from the gathering threat of a nuclear-armed Iranian fundamentalist regime. If the UN’s response to the anti-Denmark agitations is any indication—a conflagration stoked to engulf all matters on the international agenda—the organization is hardly up to the task.

The Haley’s Comet of Human Rights Reform

Opportunities to fix any UN body, let alone a major one, come along about as often as Haley’s Comet. A window has opened now to reform, and hopefully redeem, the UN’s human rights apparatus; if we miss it, our next chance won’t come again for at least another lifetime. But we need to tread carefully—the window could also be a trap.

The ball of reform started rolling last March. At the height of corruption allegations against UN officials over the Iraqi oil-for-food program, Annan released “In Larger Freedom,” his blueprint for an overhaul of the UN, advocating the replacement of the 53-nation commission with a new and leaner council. His plan—immediately embraced by the European Union, the U.S. and the broader human rights community—called for a more efficient body, armed with a strengthened mandate and a smaller, more credible membership.

To be elected to the new council, Annan proposed, member states would need to show “a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards,” and to win the votes of no less than two-thirds of General Assembly members. The days when Cuba and Sudan could easily rely on reelection as members, and Mommar Khaddafi’s Libya as commission Chair, were numbered. Or so it seemed.

Coup Plotters Humbled

Resistance to Annan, whose changes were slated for endorsement at the World Summit in September, came swift and harsh. Strident Egyptian opposition led the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the African Group, together with combative Cuba and the entire Non-Aligned Movement. Darfur genocide or not, they argued, who was the West—or Annan, now discredited as a Western tool—to say that Sudan, or any other Muslim, African or developing country, should be disqualified from any UN body, human rights or other? Was not the UN premised on the every-country-is-the-same principle?

By April, only a month after Annan’ proposal was released, a reactionary majority of commission members rallied to force a 5-day special session in Geneva for June—a clever maneuver designed to seize jurisdiction over the reform plan, and kill it cold.

Surprisingly, the West fought back, making use of a rarely used power of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to overturn commission resolutions. The coup plotters had their gathering cut down to a single day of toothless “informal consultations.” Annan’s plan survived. But the writing was on the wall: the spoilers had the numbers, and they would be back.

Scalpels in Hand

By September, at the World Summit, back they were, scalpels in hand as the outcome document lay on the table. Annan’s membership criteria, human rights standards, enhanced mandate—all were eviscerated. What emerged was a new body left with nothing but a change in name—from human rights “commission,” to human rights “council.” The Secretary-General’s humiliation was near complete.

Still, not all was lost. The summit document tasked a working group, comprised of the UN ambassadors in New York, to define the parameters of the new council. Panama and South Africa were named as co-chairs and given a December deadline. The final proposal would take the form of a resolution to the General Assembly, submitted by its new President, Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish ambassador.

A man of apparent conviction, Eliasson came under suspicion. The rejectionist ambassadors wondered: were his earnest consultations with them merely an exercise, after which he would pull a fast one and present a plan looking an awful lot like Annan’s original? By November, the 53 commission members convened yet another “informal consultation,” hauling poor Eliasson over to Geneva, to sit before them and explain himself.

What exactly do you mean, the Oxbridge-accented Algerian representative demanded of Eliasson, when you say that the resolution for the new human rights council must reflect a “quality consensus”? Was this qualifier not some kind of Western assault on the majority view?

But Eliasson was undeterred. Calmly slipping his hand into his jacket pocket, he removed his miniature copies of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and held them up, one in each hand, for all to see. “A consensus proposal that stands up to these—that is what I mean.”  The unexpected display of moral backbone from a UN figure silenced the wolves. Eliasson returned to New York unscathed.

Tower of Babel

December rolled around, with Christmas and the deadline to complete the talks fast approaching. For months, the co-chairs had dutifully held their meetings, churning out a successive stream of drafts. The initial texts were a Tower of Babel. The November 28th version featured one clause alone—on how many times a year the new council would meet—with no less than 13 different country proposals. (Norway proposed regular meetings all year; Egypt, the existing once-a-year session of six weeks was just fine, thank you; Iran and Pakistan: ditto, but wouldn’t it be even better if we also cut off a third of its time.) And throughout the document lay 28 separate land mines—Cuban amendments designed to trip up the slightest progress. Castro’s regime insisted the new council recognize the “diverse nature of different actors” (read: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should not be applied universally); and that it delete any reference to “the protection…of fundamental freedoms.”

By the middle of December, the co-chairs managed to cut through the brush, and came out with a cleaned-up text. The text left the principal questions unresolved: who would qualify as members, how would they be elected, and with what kind of mandate? Meanwhile, the Americans and most other key players at the UN had other fish to fry. The organization was facing a complete shut-down unless an agreement on its budget would be hammered out before the New Year. Human rights reform moved to the backburner, with the December 2005 deadline of a new council turning into a suggestion, and ignored.

To Sign or Not to Sign?

Fast forward to late February 2006—today. The co-chairs, South Africa’s Ambassador Kumalo and Panama’s Ambassador Arias, issued their latest version three weeks ago. It offered a few improvements, but failed to satisfactorily resolve the most critical issues.  That done, the co-chairs—exhausted by months of wrangling, and frustrated by the last-minute crises—were only too happy to pass the buck to the President of the General Assembly. All eyes now look to Eliasson for his final draft, which, after his marathon of bilateral consultations, is expected for Thursday.

Will Eliasson’s draft improve on the February 1st version handed him by the co-chairs?  Based on reports reaching UN Watch from inside sources, it may actually be a regression. Eliasson’s proposed resolution will be evaluated by where it stands on three key issues.

  • Principles.   The current text rightly begins by citing the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human rights. However, the preamble then inexplicably grants special recognition to the principle of “self-determination of peoples”—understood by all at the UN as a nod to Arab claims against Israel. Similarly, the operational part of the text grants privileged recognition to “the right to development”—a claim invariably used by governments to invoke against other countries, instead of by individuals against their own governments. Eliasson’s text ought to refer to the UN’s universal founding documents—and no more. Certainly not to “defamation of religions and prophets,” as now demanded by the 56-strong Islamic group of states.

  • Scrutiny. Will the new council actually hold human rights violators to account? The current text laudably resisted demands for a two-thirds requirement for any resolutions naming specific countries—a proposal of pure malice, intended, first, to eliminate the few existing annual resolutions against Cuba, Belarus, North Korea, and other notorious offenders, and, second, to preserve each and every one of the Arab League’s lopsided anti-Israel measures, all of which pass by margins rarely seen outside of election day in Damascus. Introducing the additional mechanism of universal peer review, to subject all states to at least some scrutiny, is a good idea. But not in the toothless form rendered by the current text, which hardly qualifies as scrutiny when defined as “a cooperative mechanism based on an interactive dialogue.” Additionally, under the guise of “ensuring the most effective contribution” of non-governmental organizations, the current text dangerously threatens to curb the vital scrutiny applied by human rights watchdog groups.

  • Membership. Above all, what matters most is changing the membership. If the new human rights body continues to feature Sudan, Libya, and North Korea, then all of the other changes will be of no consequence. The core must be made at least somewhat less rotten. In order to do so, to keep off the worst of the worst, Annan’s plan sounded best: candidates to the council would need two-thirds of General Assembly votes. Other provisions might help, too, such as breaking the pernicious slate system used by regional groups, under which states like Zimbabwe win seats without any actual UN vote; disqualifying nations under Security Council measures (though this would cover only a handful of countries); or by deterring offender states from submitting their candidacies by requiring extra or more immediate peer review and scrutiny from all council members. If, taken together, Eliasson’s resolution fails to promise even a slight change in membership, it will not be worth supporting.

Now that the UN has admitted the gross failings of the human rights commission in stark terms, will it take the logical step to replace it with something that is not only different, but meaningfully better? Will the UN live up to the human rights vision that inspired and informed its founding?

Decision on Iranian Threat

If that decision isn’t important enough, soon comes the one on Iran’s race to build the bomb. The problem is simple: the Iranian leadership is dedicated to leading the world in genocide denial (“the Holocaust is a myth”), advocacy of and incitement to genocide (“Israel must be wiped off the map”), and a furtive and illegal attempt to acquire genocidal weapons. If Iran were not also the world pioneer at funding and fomenting Hezbollah terrorism from Argentina to the Bekaa Mountains, and at firing fatwas at the world’s novelists, we might grin and bear it. But it is, and we cannot. When this bunch says they mean to kill people, they are deadly serious.

A meeting of the board of governors of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), scheduled for March 6 and 7, will decide finally whether to refer Iran’s gross breaches of international law to the Security Council for possible punitive actions. The diplomatic progress toward UN actions that might deter Iran has been important, but it’s far from clear that Russia or China will allow the UN to proceed.

Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Per Ahlmark, co-chair of UN Watch, describes how the IAEA was duped for 18 years. “Since its start in 1985,” writes Ahlmark, “Iran’s atomic program has been an ambitious, highly deceptive project.” Yet the IAEA repeatedly gave the regime a clean bill of nuclear health. “But disclosures by experts in the West — confirmed by militant groups within Iran — made the IAEA denial absurd. Mr. El-Baradei revealed the truth on Nov. 10, 2003, in a stunning report to the IAEA board of governors: Iran had been lying to the IAEA for almost two decades.”

It is late—indeed very, very late—but in March the UN will have a chance to redeem itself on the Iranian threat. Is there reason to be optimistic?

Anti-Denmark Agitations and UN Appeasement

In the UN’s response to the ongoing anti-Denmark agitations lies the best indication of whether the UN is ready for these two decisions. Regrettably, that response—by high UN officials and bodies—offers little hope that the organization has what it takes to stand firmly for basic human rights or against the ascendant forces of Islamic radicalism, which now call for cultural and physical assault against the infidels and blasphemers amongst us. On the contrary: throughout the whole affair, the UN has consistently fueled the rage with appeasement.

First, in Geneva, there was Madame Louise Arbour, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. In November or December (her office policy is not to release correspondence, making the precise date unclear) a letter was sent to her by the 56 states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), demanding she intervene over the Danish cartoons. The letter was, of course, entirely without merit—UN High Commissioners are not in the business of interfering over a single publication in a newspaper.

Amazingly, however, according to several reports, Arbour rushed to respond to the OIC: “I understand your attitude to the images that appeared in the newspaper.”  In her letter, according to the Associated Press, Arbour added, “I find alarming any behaviors that disregard the beliefs of others. This kind of thing is unacceptable.” Danish daily Berlingske Tidende reported that Arbour further announced the dispatch of two UN experts, in the areas of religious freedom and racism, to investigate the matter.“I’m confident that they will take action in an adequate manner,” she reportedly wrote.  A diplomat from one of the countries was quoted as saying that the Islamic governments were pleased with Arbour’s reply. Arbour has not publicly denied any of the reports.

The High Commissioner’s position appears to be that if 56 states are angry, that anger must be appeased, however frivolous the complaint. Moreover, as she herself has insisted time and again, she has no authority over experts appointed by the human rights commission, who are supposed to be independent. Her reply appears to have given quite a different impression. The intent was to appease the OIC, but the effect was to strengthen agitators around the world with the message that the UN was with them.

Second, in Paris and Pakistan, the actions of the experts themselves—Asma Jahangir on freedom of religion, Doudou Diene on racism—were equally problematic, if not worse. For over a year, they have ignored detailed evidence before them showing the systematic incitement to anti-Semitism, hatred of Christians and hatred of the West that pervades the state-sponsored educational systems of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On January 7, 2005, UN Watch submitted a Letter of Allegation on this matter to Mr. Diene. A similar complaint was filed on January 12, 2005, to Ms. Jahangir, who, it must be said, happens to be an heroic figure in battling Islamic repression in her native Pakistan. Extensive supporting material was adduced, revealing, for example, that students in the fifth grade of Egyptian schools are taught that “Jews do not keep their treaties… they betrayed God and His Messenger before God took revenge on them. They are always like this.” Likewise, students in the ninth grade of Saudi schools are taught that “It is not permitted to emulate the infidels—Jews, Christians, and others… Emulation of the infidels leads to loving them, glorifying them, and raising their status in the eyes of the Muslim, and that is forbidden.”

All of this and far worse takes place every day, on a grand scale, throughout the Middle East—whether in schools or the media, it is state-sponsored. And yet the experts chose to look away. Yet what one free newspaper did on one day suddenly mobilized the experts into prompt action. Not surprisingly, their conclusions, issued on February 8th, pays lip service to free expression, but ultimately comes down on the side of the OIC. “While both rights should be equally respected, the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities.” (Hint: at the UN, the “While” clause is always the throw-away.) The agitators have no “special duties or responsibilities,” only the poor Danes. Lest there be any confusion, “The press must enjoy large editorial freedom… Nevertheless, the use of stereotypes and labeling that insult deep-rooted religious feelings do not contribute to…” — and so on.

Third, the general message from New York has been of the same piece, with Kofi Annan insisting there was no proof that the Syrian and Iranian governments were behind the torching of Danish embassies in their capitals— this even though there is no such thing as a “spontaneous demonstration” in Damascus or Tehran.

The Road Ahead

With UN officials around the world in full appeasement mode, it was little surprise that the OIC last week decided to throw a giant monkey-wrench into the human rights council talks. In the final week, after a year of negotiations, the OIC suddenly insisted the text include a reference to “defamation of religions and prophets.” It is under consideration.

While there is still time, the UN must change course. It must find the courage to create a human rights council worthy of its name, and to stand up against the genocidal nuclear fantasies of Iran’s millenarian mullahs. With these two decisions—both required in the next month—the UN will show what it is made of.

UN Watch