Issue 419: "A tale of two summits" by Scott Barber, National Post

A tale of two summits: Human rights abusers condemned at one meeting, entertained at another

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NATIONAL POST | March 1, 2013
By Scott Barber

Last week two summits were held on human rights.
At one, the Geneva Summit on Human Rights & Democracy, delegates heard harrowing stories of brutality, rape and torture under some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.
At the other, United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) diplomats — some of them from the same governments mentioned in the first summit — took the floor. The National Post’s Scott Barber reports on the conflicting summits.

(organized by UN Watch & 20 other NGOs)

Geneva-based UN Watch, the non-governmental organization that has the job of holding the United Nations to account, organized the fifth annual Geneva Summit on Human Rights & Democracy Feb. 19. It was sponsored by 20 international organizations and “assembled hundreds of courageous dissidents and human rights victims, activists, and student leaders, to shine a spotlight on urgent human rights situations that require global attention.” Here are some of the stories they told.

(the UN Human Rights Council)

The UN Human Rights Council opened its 22nd session last week. Because positions on the 47-member council are held in rotation, this year’s batch of new members include such flagrant human rights violators as Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened the session saying, “Much progress has occurred during [the past] two decades. But we must recognize that the glass is half full, and the promise of respecting all human rights for all people is still a dream for too many.”


Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp. His parents were two of the estimated 200,000 political prisoners believed to be confined to North Korea’s concentration camps. Subjected to a daily regime of hard work and hunger – inmates sometimes ate rats and picked through manure for kernels of corn – he became hardened to the brutality around him.
He remembers a seven-year-old girl being beaten to death at Camp 14 for hiding food and later watched the execution of his mother and brother after they attempted to escape. Indoctrinated by the perverted morality that was life in the camps, he had alerted guards to their plans.
At the Geneva summit Mr. Shin and Kang Chol-hwan, who survived 10 years in the notorious Yodok concentration camp before being released, told of the forced labour, extreme hunger, violence and brutality they suffered.

UN Watch and Human Rights Watch are among the groups pressuring the UNHRC to create a commission of inquiry on human rights abuses in North Korea. Human Rights watch pointed to “the systematic non-cooperation of North Korea with the UN human rights mechanisms. including a refusal to acknowledge or cooperate with the UN special rappor-teur, or recognize UN resolutions on North Korean human rights.”

Although North Korea has committed to numerous international human rights treaties, the totalitarian regime continues to deny basic rights to political expression and organization, while imprisoning countless political prisoners without trial.

The UNHRC will examine a “review of Republic of Korea” on March 14.


In 2002, a tribal council in Pakistan sentenced Mukhtar Mai to be gang raped. It ruled the rape was an “honour revenge,” punishment for an alleged crime committed by her 12-year-old brother.
Instead of committing suicide, as is customary for rape victims in Pakistan, Ms. Mai fought for justice. It took years, but eventually the six men accused of the rape were convicted and sentenced to death. However, in an act widely criticized by international human rights groups, five of them were acquitted on appeal by the Pakistani Supreme Court.
As a result of the legal proceedings, Ms. Mai faced threats from local feudal lords and lives in fear of the Pakistani government. But she has kept working for women’s rights, through the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization.
“As long as I live, I will keep fighting for the rights of women,” she told The New Statesman magazine last year. In 2010, she supported the Human Rights Foundation’s decision to petition the United Nations’ special rapporteur on violence against women to address the acquittal of the men who raped her. The UNHRC did not agree to the request.

The world’s “deadliest country for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders, was given a seat at the UNHRC this year, which it will hold until

the end of 2015. The Pakistani government is well known for its corruption and oppressive nature, which includes blasphemy laws that are punishable by death and support for radical Islamic terrorist groups.

In its annual World Report, Human Rights Watch said of Pakistan, “Ongoing rights concerns included the breakdown of law enforcement in the face of terror attacks, continuing abuses across Balochistan, ongoing torture and ill treatment of criminal suspects, and unresolved enforced disappearances of terrorism suspects and opponents of the military. Religious minorities continue to face insecurity and persecution as the government failed to provide protection to those threatened or to hold extremists accountable.”

According to UN Watch, Pakistan has continued to abstain from votes on resolutions to support victims in North Korea and Burma in the UN General Assembly.


At 16, Marina Nemat was arrested as a political prisoner after organizing a school strike and sent to the infamous Evin Prison. For over two years, Ms. Nemat, a Christian, was beaten, tortured, raped, forced to convert to Islam and marry a prison guard.
Last year, she told the San Francisco Freedom Forum how when she arrived she was put in handcuffs. But the adult handcuffs were too big so both her wrists were put in one cuff. “I heard a crack, the sound of my wrist breaking. And the torture hadn’t even begun.”
This week she told the Geneva Summit, “Right now, Evin Prison is completely operational and it has about 7,000 prisoners.”
Ms. Nemat, who recounted her story in a book, Prisoner of Tehran, and now teaches writing at the University of Toronto, said the UN had an obligation to stand up to Iran “as an international organization which is supposed to protect victims.”
“The UN really fails to hold countries like China, Cuba, North Korea and Iran accountable,” she said. “It has become a very political organization that has a lot of red tape and a lot of issues.”

In 2011, the UN appointed a special rapporteur to investigate the “situation of human rights” in Iran, but never condemned the country. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch said he was concerned the UN would again simply renew the rapporteur’s mandate but omit any substance in its resolution.

“Given that the UN General Assembly’s annual resolution on Iran is replete with detail on the regime’s human rights violations, it is incomprehensible and unacceptable that the Human Rights Council lacks the political will to produce anything more than a procedural text that fails to name Tehran’s massive abuses.”

This week, the European Union urged the UNHRC to act over Iran. Ireland’s Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc, told the council, “We cannot remain silent in the face of violent oppression of dissent, as well as detention and execution without fair trial, severe discrimination against women and members of ethnic and religious minorities, restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and religion or belief.”


Abidine Ould-Merzough was born to slaves as part of the Haratin community in Mauritania, where experts believe as many as 20% of the population still live in bondage. In 1981 Mauritania became the last country to abolish slavery, but it remains widely practiced.
Slavery persists in the West African nation because the government “is controlled by masters and former masters, who undertake all necessary power to keep slavery practices unchanged, but hidden and invisible from outsiders,” Mr. Merzough said.
The masters are traditionally the White Moors, lighter-skinned Arabs, while the 800,000 slaves are darker-skinned, descendants of people captured centuries ago by the Berbers.
An undercover team from CNN reported last year slaves were bound for life to their masters. They were not sold, but given away as gifts – often as a wedding present.
Mr. Merzough escaped slavery in 1976, when his father led a rebellion. He was able to attend school and move to Germany, where he works as an mechanical engineer. He is also the European coordinator for the NGO the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania.
Mr. Merzough says slavery is allowed to flourish in the country because of the way politicians and Muslim clerics interpret shariah.
He told The Commentator website, “From early on, people are taught in religious schools that slaves are the masters’ properties, who are passed along as inheritance and where the condition of slavery is transmitted from parent to child, where women slaves must submit their bodies to their masters.”

With a grotesque history of slavery, human trafficking, child labour and female genital mutilation, the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is far from an ideal member of the UNHRC. Nonetheless, human rights observers were appalled in December when it was announced that not only will Mauritania occupy a seat on the council for 2013, but Cheikh Ahmed Ould Zahaf, of Mauritania, was to become an UNHRC vice-president.

“It is revolting that the government of Mauritania, which continues to be complicit in the slavery of hundreds of thousands, is vice-president of the council,” said Mr. Neuer of UN Watch.

Mr. Merzough said the appointment was damaging to the abolitionist cause. “The day Mauritania was elected everyone was happy in Mauritania,” he said. “They thought it was a sign of good will from the United Nations and that now everyone was accepting what the government had been saying about slavery and human rights in Mauritania.”

Worse than its use as a tool of domestic propaganda, the election could encourage Mauritanian officials to continue their denials of the existence of slavery, and to neglect to enforce anti-slavery law, he said.

Meanwhile, UN Watch has noted Mauritania’s abysmal voting record – it has rejected resolutions on human rights violations by Iran, Burma and North Korea.

Mohamed Abdallah Ould Khattra, Mauritania’s commissioner for human rights, told the UNHRC Tuesday denial of human rights was being compounded by the global financial crisis and climate change.


UN Watch