Issue 483: Picking Sides on the ‘World Stage’

UN Watch’s recent human rights summit was the focus of the following op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen. 

Picking Sides on the ‘World Stage’

By Terry Glavin
February 28, 2014
GENEVA — Some of the world’s most notorious gangsters, mass murderers and torturers will be having their affairs attended to and their interests minded with the most assiduous attention to decorum and manners here next week with the opening of the annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Envoys from several criminal regimes are set to assemble beneath the council’s amazing, elliptically domed, multicoloured and dramatically textured ceiling, a creation of the Spanish artist Miquel Barceló that is supposed to put one in mind of a wonderful cave beneath the sea. Perhaps it’s intended to keep rude mentions of the stinking dungeons back home to a low murmur. I wouldn’t know.
And maybe things aren’t quite that bad, but the contrast couldn’t have been sharper this week with a gathering in a conference centre across the street from the UN’s Palais des Nations where the UN Human Rights Council meets. Among the delegates to the 6th annual Summit for Human Rights and Democracy were dissidents and activists from North Korea, China, Pakistan, Iran and several other human rights hellholes.
The annual summit is the project of about a dozen human rights groups led by UN Watch, a non-governmental organization that tries to keep the heat on the human rights abusers that persist in paralyzing the UN’s capacity as a guarantor of human rights around the world.
This year’s UN Watch summit was kicked off with a rousing speech by the Mount Royal Liberal MP and former justice minister Irwin Cotler, who once served as international counsel to anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela in South Africa and to dissident Natan Sharansky in Russia, and got himself briefly jailed and then expelled from both countries.
Among the more prominent activists at the UN Watch Summit this year:
Chen Guangcheng, the blind “barefoot lawyer” who escaped house arrest and found refuge in the United States embassy in Beijing in 2012; Biram Dah Abeid, founder of Mauritania’s anti-slavery movement; Ahn Myong Chul, an activist who defected from North Korea where he had worked as a prison guard in that country’s infamous gulag system; Dhardon Sharling, the youngest elected MP of Tibet’s parliament in exile in Dharamsala, India, and a leader of the Tibetan Women’s Association.
Among the members of the UN Human Rights Council, meanwhile: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba. The UN General Assembly elected these rights-trampling regimes to the 47-member council last November. Such police states and autocracies as Pakistan, Maldives, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Algeria were already council members in good standing.

“The UN Human Rights Council is a complex body,” Montrealer Hillel Neuer, the UN Watch executive director, told summit delegates. “There are times when it does good things, there are times when it does bad things, and there are times when it just does nothing.”
Whatever one might make of what the Human Rights Council is doing these days, it would not be unreasonable to wonder whether the council is reverting to the very habits that caused the completely discredited UN Human Rights Commission to be replaced by the council during a thoroughgoing credibility-crisis makeover back in 2006.
In last November’s voting, 176 of the UN’s 193 member states voted for China, where human rights are a kind of science fiction. Russia, where human rights run more along the lines of a fable, drew the same number of ballots. Disgracefully, half the European Union countries voted for China and Russia. Cuba was elected to the Human Rights Council with 148 votes. Saudi Arabia was elected with 140 votes.
“This sounds like a comedy if it were not so tragic,” Neuer told delegates. “When they sit at the council, they block action for victims in their countries. They block action for victims in other countries. And the election of these dictatorships confers an undue legitimacy that only strengthens the regime and undermines the morale of those who are behind bars or who are active for human rights.”
What this means is that this year, certainly, Russia will face no UN censure for its ramped-up persecution of gay people, and Beijing will be able to continue the more brutal aspects of its occupation of Tibet and its vicious oppression of democrats. Havana and the Saudis will face no complaint of any consequence while they carry on imprisoning dissenters and strangling free speech.
On the plus side, on March 17 the UN Human Rights Council is set to deal with a decades-overdue UN inquiry into North Korea, released only last month. The 400-page commission report has found the regime to be engaging in “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” among other things.
Meanwhile, Bashar Assad continues to drop barrel bombs and other such primitive cluster munitions on Syrian civilians in Homs and Aleppo and the outskirts of Damascus. Assad’s backers from Tehran and Moscow can walk around Geneva with their chests puffed out, having so easily made the United States the butt of so many “red line” jokes.
It’s been six decades since Pyongyang began herding hundreds of thousands of people into its gulags and North Korea is still a slave state owned by a psychopathic wing of the Kim family. It’s been 10 years since everybody noticed there was a genocide underway in Darfur and Sudan’s boss genocidaire Omar al-Bashir is still a free man.
It’s been nearly two years since a settlement with the Montana attorney general required globe-trotting would-be humanitarian Greg Mortenson to repay a charity $1 million from “book royalties, speaking and travel fees, promotional costs and inappropriate personal charges.”
And yet what is the book most prominently displayed at the UN’s visitor’s centre here, and also at the UN’s bookstore? It’s the disgraced Mortenson’s bestseller-fairy tale, Three Cups of Tea.
In Canada, it’s all the rage among the disenfranchised mandarins of the old foreign policy establishment to mutter and whinge about how vulgar Ottawa has become lately. It’s true enough that if you were to put it uncharitably you could say Foreign Affairs does seem seized of a kind of hillbilly disinclination to maintain legions of useless diplomats and glorified letter-carriers, hobnobbing and primping and schmoozing and being seen to schmooze all over the damn place.
It’s definitely true that here in Geneva, on the “world stage” we’re always being told about, it does seem like there are fewer Canadians lounging around on the sofas at the Palais des Nations these days.
You’re surely more likely to bump into Canadians at venues like the Summit for Human Rights and Democracy across the street, and about that, for some strange reason, I just can’t seem to bring myself to feel ashamed.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist whose latest book is Come From the Shadows.
UN Watch