Issue 156: The U.N.’s Elite Apologists

Although UN Watch continues to urge the US to run for a seat and join the Human Rights Council, that body’s abuses must be squarely faced. The following UN Watch editorial appears in today’s New York SunBelow that is our letter to the editor published in the latest edition of The Economist.


February 21, 2007

The U.N.’s Elite Apologists

By Hillel C. Neuer

Supporting the United Nations does not require apologizing for its abuses. Even the New York Times conceded that last year’s reform of the new U.N. Human Rights Council — which still includes Cuba, China, and Saudi Arabia — was an “ugly sham.”

The former secretary-general, Kofi Annan, himself exposed the bias of the 47-nation council — whose agenda is entirely dictated by the Islamic bloc — and urged it to change course.

It is baffling, then, that a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former adviser to Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation, Jeffrey Laurenti, felt it necessary in a recent report not only to absolve the council, but also to celebrate its creation — as one of the top 10 “Best in the World for 2006.” Because Mr. Laurenti is one of America’s elite commentators on U.N. affairs, his remarks are also alarming.

“The biggest institutional overhaul to emerge from outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s U.N. reform drive,” wrote Mr. Laurenti, “was the upgrading of the policy body overseeing human rights to a yearround Council, four-fifths of whose members are bona fide democracies; the Council’s nation-specific focus on war-fighting excesses by Israel and Sudan, however, offended the West and Islamists respectively.”

Never have so few words on a U.N. subject managed to convey so much misinformation.

First, the council is hardly an “upgrade.” Yes, it meets more often than its predecessor, the discredited Commission on Human Rights. But even ardent U.N. enthusiasts agree that its record has been worse.

The old commission met once a year, managing to censure about five states that were major abusers of human rights, such as Belarus, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, and Turkmenistan.

By contrast, the new council has not censured one of these countries and not one country on Freedom House’s Worst of the Worst list.

Is reform impossible? Over time, a few modest improvements could emerge. But these will mean little while the governing dynamic — abuser regimes looking out for each other, as democracies waffle — remains the same.

Second, Mr. Laurenti equates Israel’s self-defense against armed provocations from Hamas and Hezbollah with Sudan’s mass rape and killing of innocents in Darfur, describing both as “war-fighting excesses.”

And Mr. Laurenti misinforms when he says the council focused on both countries. Sudan was debated only in a single December session, with no censure adopted.

Instead, the council so far has devoted 100% of its condemnations — three special sessions and eight resolutions — to onesided attacks against Israel, granting immunity to Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism. The world’s major Western democracies, Mr. Annan, and even harsh critics of Israel like Amnesty International have decried the council’s politically motivated bias.

Third, Mr. Laurenti asserts that four-fifths of the council’s members are “bona fide democracies.” Yet according to Freedom House’s annual survey, close to half of the members fail to meet the basic standards of a free democracy. So where does Mr. Laurenti get his figures?

He apparently refers to the fact that 37 council members have signed on to the Community of Democracies, a loose association of over 100 countries, membership to which requires little. Under Mr. Laurenti’s definition, “bona fide democracies” include Bahrain, Bangladesh, Jordan, Morocco, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia — regimes that jail journalists, trample basic freedoms, or commit systematic torture.

Words have consequences. A state’s solemn pledges to the Community of Democracies may be used by activists as a sword, to hold governments accountable. But in a dramatic reversal — one that will startle democracy supporters everywhere — Mr. Laurenti advocates using that membership as a shield, to protect subverted U.N. bodies and, by extension, their repressive members.

In his defense, Mr. Laurenti is guilty only of a copycat crime. George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center was the first to purvey this misleading apologia in a report published after the first election of council members in May 2006, and its executive director, Morton Halperin, repeated it months later in testimony before Congress. Then, in July, the United Nations Foundation on its blog beamed about the council’s “37 democracies.”

A senior official of Human Rights Watch hailed the same figure at a September seminar in New York. A panel member, I noted that by the same logic one ought to celebrate the bona fides of all council members, each a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There was no rebuttal.

Two months later, the same official published an oped saying that “Thirty-seven of the council’s 47 members are considered democracies.”

This debate matters because ordinary citizens will judge the United Nations by the credibility of its most touted reforms.

For various motives — including an ideology that believes America is the greatest global menace, which must be checked by a powerful United Nations — leading activists are fudging facts to mask the ugly sores on the international organization’s flagship human rights body.

However unwittingly, the arguments of Mr. Laurenti and his fellow travelers play to the worst forces of extremism that now threaten international peace and security — and, contrary to the pleas of Mr. Annan, only encourage the council’s further deterioration.

Mr. Neuer is executive director of UN Watch in Geneva and editor of its news and comment Web site,



February 15, 2007
Print Edition

A controversial vote

By Hillel C. Neuer

SIR – South Africa’s willingness to abandon its values on human rights by shielding repressive regimes from UN scrutiny goes beyond its recent vote. In the Security Council, South Africa argued that Myanmar presented a human-rights, not security, issue. But in the 2006 General Assembly’s Third Committee, which deals with human rights, South Africa abstained on a resolution criticising Myanmar. It also voted against resolutions critical of Belarus and Iran, abstained on one critical of North Korea, and supported a procedural “no action” motion blocking a resolution that would have criticised Uzbekistan.

Likewise, in the 2006 Human Rights Council, South Africa consistently voted with its Non-Aligned Movement allies, most of whom are repressive, non-democratic regimes, to shield Sudan from criticism for its actions in Darfur. Whether the persecuted are near or far, South Africa finds itself with unclean hands.

Hillel Neuer
Executive director
United Nations Watch


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