Issue 141: U.S. Leadership Needed on New UN Human Rights Council

La Commission est mort. Vive le Conseil!

Listening to the eulogies at last week’s official funeral in Geneva for the UN Human Rights Commission (1946- 2006), one worried for its successor, the Human Rights Council, whose 47 member countries will be chosen by the General Assembly next month. The speeches by diplomats and UN officials largely downplayed the very defects that proved fatal to the Commission. Some, like Saudi Arabia’s Abdulwahab Attar, speaking for the Asian Group, actually celebrated them, calling for relativism when applying human rights standards, and a ban on citing violations by specific countries—except against Israel, whose targeting by the Commission he lauded as its greatest accomplishment. All of this bodes poorly for the new Council, which is supposed to offer improved credibility. While some Americans conclude that their country’s response ought to be a retreat into isolation, it is precisely U.S. engagement and leadership that are needed to steer the new ship away from the rocks that lurk on every side.

Burial of a Commission

They came not to bury the Human Rights Commission, but to praise it. “Much has been said about the demise of the Commission,” said Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights, in last Monday’s opening address. “It would, however, be a distortion of fact, and a gross disservice to this institution, if we failed on this occasion to celebrate [its] achievements.” Arbour rightfully recalled the standard-setting role of the Commission, which, under founder Eleanor Roosevelt’s guidance, gave us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a solemn reaffirmation of human dignity three years after the horrors of the Holocaust. She also importantly cited the valuable public forum that the Commission provided for NGOs, possibly one of its most noteworthy features.

But whether the Commission’s acknowledged legacy of good would be interred with its bones—with the many evils that it did living after—was a question that last Monday’s ceremony pointedly ignored.

Commission’s Flaws Ignored

Arbour added several other accomplishments, most of which were similarly mentioned by the Western Group.  Both statements, however, would have more usefully provided a fuller picture by also identifying the deficiencies that led to the entire process of reform, and which the new Council must redress.

Yes, the Commission’s system of independent experts contributed much for human rights victims.  But a small number—like Jean Ziegler, the expert on the right to food, who was denounced this year by Kofi Annan for comparing Israelis to Nazis—have been disappointments if not veritable disasters. Council members will need to pay closer attention to the quality of appointees.

And yes, the Commission’s shift in the 1970’s toward considering the situation of human rights in specific countries—and not just general norms—was in principle a welcome development.  In practice, however, it meant that only a handful of countries were cited each year, with most of the world’s worst violations ignored. Last year, for example, despite massive efforts by democracies and human rights groups, the Commission proved unable to pass a resolution about Sudan and Darfur under the agenda item for human rights violations. Instead, mass rape and killing was officially treated as a matter of “Technical Cooperation.”

At the same time, the Commission annually devoted an exclusive agenda item—as well as half of all country-specific resolutions—to bashing Israel.  As Professor Irwin Cotler, a Canadian Member of Parliament, recently observed, if we care about the institutions of the United Nations and international law, we are obliged to speak out against an injustice that severely undermines their integrity.
Finally, though it is true that the individual complaints process known as the “1503 procedure” gave rise to some worthy mechanisms in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Arbour significantly exaggerated its effectiveness. According to her speech, some “20,000 communications are processed every year”; the procedure “draws the attention of the Commission to allegations of wide-spread patterns of gross human rights violations in any country”; and it remains “the only available procedure that many victims of human rights violations may invoke.”

The sad truth is that the system was grossly politicized, with actually only a handful of complaints ever making it to full Commission hearings. Last year, the 5-member panel that selected the cases to be heard was dominated by Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. And even for those few cases, the available remedies were largely toothless, under the pretext of opening dialogue with violator regimes. When faced with Idi Amin’s widespread killings in Uganda, the commission first dithered for four years, then sent an envoy—by which time the dictator had already been deposed. No wonder that according to Professor Philip Alston—himself now an expert serving under the Commission—“the shortcomings of the procedure are so considerable, its tangible achievements so scarce.”

Moral Relativism Celebrated

If the democratic voices were unwilling to confront the Commission’s major flaws, we should hardly be surprised that the non-democratic alliances felt empowered to go on the offensive.

The statements by the largest regional groups, Asia and Africa—who will together hold a majority of the Council’s votes—suggest that, in terms of policy and political will, nothing has changed. Like Asia, the African position, represented by Morocco, gave every indication that massive human rights abuses would continue to be answered by inaction, indifference and moral relativism. “Different value systems are inherent,” said the African statement, hence “any attempt to impose one’s own value system on others would imply disregard for other cultures and civilizations.” Translation:  the Universal Declaration—the document we have all signed and continue to publicly endorse—doesn’t apply to us. If that wasn’t bad enough, the African Group urged the new human rights body to defer to the principle of “non-interference in internal affairs.” Translation: the atrocities in Darfur are none of anyone’s business, including the UN.

Thus was the Commission buried.

Long Live the Council

On May 9th, the General Assembly meets to elect the 47 countries who will become the first members of the new Council. Significantly, these pioneers will fill in the numerous blanks regarding the Council’s work—including its agenda, the new peer review system, and the nature of NGO participation.

As of today, a few dozen countries have already tossed their names in the ring, each hoping to pass the minimum requirement of 96 out of 191 votes. Candidates range from democracies like Canada, Costa Rica and Germany, to tyrannies like Cuba, Iran and Saudi Arabia. How the elections turn out will be the first test for the new Council, the composition of which, its advocates insisted, would see meaningful improvements.(For our updated “Election Watch” coverage, click here.)

Its next trials will follow quickly, as soon as the new panel begins its work in Geneva on June 19th. Will it speak out for the millions of victims in Darfur and elsewhere around the world? Will it give in to the Arab bloc’s declared insistence upon inheriting the biased agenda item against Israel? Will it confront the world’s worst violators, or rather let them off, perhaps in the spirit of the much-touted “cooperation” principle?

U.S. Must Join

UN insiders are wondering:  Will Washington run for election or not? Even those not favorably disposed to the U.S. recognize that a decision by the world’s leading superpower to stay out may spell doom for the new Council. Certainly, the Genevois who work in the magnificent UN structure that formerly housed the League of Nations are ever aware of what America’s absence can do to an organization.

For now, the debate within Washington rages on. When the U.S. voted on March 15 to oppose the UN resolution creating the new Council—joined by Israel and two Pacific islands—it did so with the broad support of American public opinion, both conservative and liberal (including the editorial page of the New York Times). After the vote, however, opinion is divided as to whether the country should join a body against which it so loudly voted no confidence.

Some opponents of joining argue that the U.S. should form an alternative human rights forum, such as an alliance of democracies. Yet there is little indication that anyone is ready to follow. The existing Community of Democracies meets only once every two years and, regrettably, has so far proved largely ineffectual. Whether we like it or not, the UN Human Rights Council is the new reality. The U.S. ought to hold its nose and get inside. Those tempted by the fantasy of splendid isolation may enjoy seeing America stick it to rest of the world. But this would defeat President Bush’s somewhat successful attempt to reach out to the rest of the world and repair the breaches created over the war in Iraq.

In the end, America will look plain silly if it decides not to run, like the kid who takes his marbles and goes home. After all, the U.S. has always argued vigorously that it was vital for the world that America always be represented on the Commission, and the same was asserted this year regarding the new Council. True, there is a risk that the U.S. will be embarrassed by an electoral defeat, but this is unlikely. Washington knows how to campaign, and most member states recognize the importance of its participation.

With all the pressures that are already pushing the nascent Council in the wrong direction, strong U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever.

UN Watch

Cookie Policy

We use cookies to give you a more personalized browsing experience and analyze site traffic. Read More