Issue 392: New York Times Article on UN Watch Conference * U.S. Wins UNHRC Seat But So Does Chavez

Today: New York Times Article on UN Watch Conference

November 12, 2012

Voting for U.N. Rights Council Puts Focus on Records of Panel’s Member States


Those who criticize the United Nations as a toothless and dysfunctional organization often point to the membership of the Human Rights Council to make their case. China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia now hold seats. The body has been a vocal and reliable critic of Israel, but has been lenient on countries like Sri Lanka, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Even the United States refused to participate in the council, until the Obama administration reversed a Bush-era policy and ran successfully for a seat in 2009. On Monday, the United States won re-election to the body for another three-year term.

In Monday’s election, 18 states gained seats, even though activists had denounced each potential member’s human rights record days earlier. “We need better ingredients in the soup,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said during an event on Friday at the United Nations in New York where questions were raised about several candidates for the panel.

On Friday, UN Watch and the Human Rights Foundation had invited activists from Venezuela, Pakistan and Kazakhstan to speak about human rights violations. The three countries all gained council membership on Monday, even though the two groups judged them “not qualified” to serve, based on an examination (PDF) of their domestic rights protections and their voting record at the United Nations.

“It would be immoral to let Venezuela join if it doesn’t improve its behavior,” said the Venezuelan businessman Eligio Cedeño, who supported opposition politicians before being arrested and charged with circumventing currency controls.

As my colleague Simon Romero reported in 2010, a judge, María Lourdes Afiuni, freed Mr. Cedeño after a U.N. legal panel said his pretrial detention exceeded the limits set by Venezuelan law. The ruling by Judge Afiuni angered President Hugo Chávez, who, while contending on national television that she would have been put before a firing squad in earlier times, sent his secret police to arrest her. She was sentenced to 30 years and is currently under house arrest. Mr. Cedeño fled to the United States.

UN Watch and the Human Rights Foundation also criticized Pakistan for failing “to meet the minimal standards of a free democracy.” A major point of international scrutiny and condemnation has been Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Sajid Christopher, a Christian activist, denounced the law as an instrument of intimidation against religious minorities. “The law requires neither proof of intent nor evidence to be presented after allegations are made, and includes no penalties for false allegations,” said Mr. Christopher, the founder of a group called Human Friends International.

He mentioned the case of Rimsha Masih. My colleagues Declan Walsh and Salman Masood reported in August that Rimshah, a 14-year-old Christian girl living outside Islamabad, was detained for weeks after being accused of burning pages from a religious textbook. Some reports said she had Down syndrome. Her case unleashed a public furor that showed the deep polarization in Pakistani society over the blasphemy law.

Igor Vinyavsky, a newspaper editor from Kazakhstan, denounced harassment and persecution against independent media outlets. In its latest press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Kazakhstan 154th out of 179 countries. Mr. Vinyavsky was detained in January and held for two months, accused of distributing leaflets calling for an insurrection, a charge he has denied. He was arrested after a raid on his Almaty-based newspaper, Vzglyad, in which the security forces confiscated all reporting equipment, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported.

“To elect Kazakhstan would be a baffling and shameful act,” Mr. Vinyavsky said through a translator on Friday.

With each speaker, frustration about Venezuela, Pakistan and Kazakhstan joining the Human Rights Council became more palpable. But some, like Thor Halvorssen, the president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, remained hopeful that the system could be reformed. “It is up to the news media and civil society groups to point out the contradictions within the Human Rights Council,” Mr. Halvorssen said.

But some think reform is a lost cause. Critics of the council say the election system is flawed, giving equal say to all countries in the General Assembly, regardless of their record. “That’s the problem with using the U.N. to address human-rights problems,” wrote Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford and former foreign correspondent for The Times, in an op-ed in July. “Every single state in the world, even the most reprehensible, is an equal member.”

Once they gain membership, repressive states use the council to craft Orwellian resolutions that seek to protect their political control under the banners of national sovereignty and international respect. “The council is irredeemable,” Mr. Brinkley wrote. “It’s time the U.S. dropped out.”

Mr. Halvorssen, however, keeps trying. He founded the Human Rights Foundation after his mother was shot during a 2004 protest in Venezuela. In June, he was cut off by the delegation of Cuba in Geneva while delivering a fiery speech against Venezuela’s human rights record.

Among the speakers on Friday was Marcel Granier, the president of RCTV, one of Venezuela’s oldest television stations and a frequent government critic. The station went off the air after losing its license in 2007, in a move widely seen as political retaliation. Mr. Chávez accused RCTV and other private broadcasters of supporting a coup that briefly ousted him in 2002.

Mr. Granier lives in Venezuela and considers speaking up the only way forward. “I receive threats against my life almost everyday,” he said matter-of-factly as attendees to the lunch event overlooking the East River ate their chocolate desserts. “I’m used to it.”

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Marcel Granier, Venezuelan journalist persecuted by Chavez regime, speaking at UN Watch’s 5th annual press conference evaluating UNHRC candidates, Nov. 9, 2012, U.N. Headquarters, organized together with Human Rights Foundation.

Eligio Cedeno, Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner before 2009 escape to America.

Igor Vinyavsky, Kazakhstan journalist persecuted by Nazarbayev regime


The regime of Sudanese dictator Al-Bashir, wanted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, was elected last week to a key U.N. human rights oversight body. Sadly, the U.S. and EU were silent. Only UN Watch spoke out.

UN Watch