UNITED NATIONS – As soon as the U.N.’s Human Rights Council wrapped up its annual summer meeting last week, defenders of the 47-nation body declared: mission accomplished.
I applaud the Obama administration for pushing the council to censure Syria, reinstate a monitor on Belarus and affirm Internet freedom. Yet post-session assessments put out by the State Department failed to present the full picture of what really happened: The three-week session turned a blind eye to the vast majority of the world’s worst abusers, who were instead given free rein to distort the very concept of individual human rights. And a key player was the communist government of Cuba.
If the council respected its own membership criteria, Havana would never be there in the first place. It’s a regime that jails journalists, arbitrarily arrests dissidents, and supports murderous tyrants like Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Despite the government’s rhetoric about “economic and social rights,” Cubans are subjected to an impoverished existence, causing many to take desperate measures to flee the island. Yet this did not stop Cuba from once again taking a front row seat at the world’s highest human-rights body.
• First, the Castro government played defense for its authoritarian allies, standing with Russia and China, two other council members, in opposing the condemnation of Syria’s atrocities. Havana’s contribution to the debate? Explaining that the violence in Syria is caused by “terrorists,” not Assad’s forces.
Likewise, Cuba ran blocking for Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime stood accused of vote-rigging. “George W. Bush took the U.S. presidency via a fraudulent electoral process,” was the sum of Cuba’s plenary argument. It accused censure proponents of seeking “regime change” so that “the economy of Belarus opens to privatization.”
• Second, Cuba tried to silence the council’s genuine voices of human rights. When Venezuelan-born Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, took the floor and dared to challenge the tyrannies who sit on the council, the Cuban delegate went into a rage, banging on the table and shouting for the speaker to be stopped.
Given the floor, Juan Antonio Quintanilla Roman protested the use of “disrespectful” terms, such as “authoritarian regimes.” China, Russia and Pakistan echoed his complaint. If the truth hurts, goes the thinking, ban it. Only America spoke for Halvorssen’s right to continue.
• Third, Cuba submitted a series of resolutions to divert the council from addressing genuine and pressing human rights situations.
One lengthy resolution demanded debt relief for developing countries — a subject involving no particular human right violation, and one that’s already addressed at the U.N.’s numerous development-related agencies and conferences. Another endorsed the doctrine of “cultural rights,” used at the U.N. to promote relativism at the expense of the universal application of human rights. When China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are accused of jailing dissidents, subjugating women or hanging gays, they take cover under the banner of “cultural diversity.”
Just consider Cuba’s most Orwellian act of the session: its resolution establishing a U.N. working group to enact a declaration on “the Right to Peace.”
Endorsed by such peace-loving states as Sudan, Belarus, China, Sri Lanka, Iran, North Korea — even Syria — the resolution, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley, offers “pointless blather” that “will beguile you so you won’t notice on page six that they also want the U.N. to endorse the idea that ‘all peoples and individuals have the right to resist and oppose oppressive colonial, foreign occupation.’ ”
In other words, the council has legitimized the terminology used by Middle East terrorists to kill Americans and Israelis. The political culture of the council is such that the U.S. was the only one of 47 nations to vote no.
Busy on the Cuban proposals, the council found no time to speak out for dissident Yoani Sánchez and other Cubans like her who face daily repression. Nor was a single word adopted for victims of persecution in China, Iran or Sudan.
Going forward, there’s good news and bad news. In January, for the first time, Cuba will be forced by term limits to go off the council. However, Venezuela’s Chávez regime is running uncontested to replace it. With a surrogate in place, Havana will continue to sit tight and enjoy impunity.
Those who truly wish to reform the world’s top human-rights body must speak frankly and diagnose all that continues to ail it. Calling a sick patient healthy is not the cure.
Hillel Neuer, an international lawyer, is executive director of UN Watch in Geneva.