March 5, 2010
By Peter Fabricius
THOSE who have discerned and welcomed very slight improvements in the Zuma administration’s international stance on human rights might have been dismayed by the speech of International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.
It was a template presentation which could have been – and probably was – copied and pasted out of any number of past speeches to the council.
There was no discernible political input from the minister, no shift in positions or emphasis, no echo of the slightly tougher votes against the human rights abuses of Iran and Burma (Myanmar) which South Africa cast at the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in New York last year.
In keeping with South Africa’s – and indeed Africa’s and the developing world’s – often self-serving aversion to confronting what most people would consider the most fundamental human rights abuses, like murder and torture of political opponents, Nkoana-Mashabane stressed that “we believe in the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights on the same par and with the same emphasis as the civil and political rights”.
Having said that, she therefore avoided mention of the many political and civil rights abuses across the world over the last year except for those allegedly committed by Israel, calling for action against it for its incursion into Gaza in 2008, including prosecutions by the International Criminal Court.
This was all template stuff.
The Geneva-based NGO UN Watch noted in a recent report that the UN Human Rights Council has, for example, completely ignored the widely documented human rights abuses – including executions – of the Iranian government against its political opponents after last year’s apparently stolen elections.
Last year the council put an avuncular arm around the shoulder of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – a fugitive from the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur – and praised him, like a dim but well-meaning pupil, for his “progress” on human rights.
The council has also ignored human rights abuses in places like China and Cuba. Yet, as UN Watch points out, the council has over the past three years passed 27 resolutions condemning Israel, more than 80 percent of its total of 33 condemnatory resolutions, while giving a free pass to Israel’s enemies Hamas and Hezbollah.
That our minister copied her first speech to the Human Rights Council so conscientiously from the African and developing world template was indeed disappointing – though not surprising to the microbiologists who study UN behaviour for a living.
They note that South Africa has always voted with the Africa bloc on the Human Rights Council, as opposed to the UN General Assembly, where it votes on its own.
Quite why this is so is puzzling. But it is certainly true that the Human Rights Council does vote en bloc.
And that is why it remains an inherently compromised institution, despite its re-launch in 2006 with a new name (it used to be called the UN Human Rights Commission) and new rules intended to free it from its political character and ensure it does what it is intended to do – protect ordinary people from abuse.
Nearly four years later the council is still no more than a political football pitch where countries largely take positions to score points off each other and human rights victims are mere footballs.
Presumably South Africa does not have to stick to the bloc system, though no doubt breaking with Africa would incur some political costs, for instance jeopardising the continent’s support for our now almost mythical bid to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
But if we have to play this cynical game with the lives of human rights victims in order to get our collective bum on that seat, will we also have to play the same games when we get there, as Africa’s representative? In that case, why bother?
Swiss weigh in on Human Rights Council debate
Mar 5, 2010
Amid attacks and praise for the Human Rights Council, Switzerland has called for a special meeting to step up debate on the United Nations body.
A review of the council’s working methods is due to take place in 2011, and with the 13th regular session underway in Geneva, delegations have been giving their verdicts this week on what needs to be addressed next year.
Switzerland, the initiator of the council back in 2006, took to the podium to offer its own critique, while also announcing it would be holding a special meeting on the issue in Montreux on April 20, open to all foreign missions in Geneva, UN representatives and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“The seminar aims to discuss in an open and informal manner the different aspects of the 2011 review of the council, before the formal process begins this autumn,” Nadine Olivieri Lozano, a spokeswoman for the Swiss foreign ministry, told swissinfo.ch.
On the issue, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey told a ministerial meeting of the council: “Let’s not spend all of our energy renewing the council.”
She agreed the problematic council had “not yet been able to deploy its full potential,” adding that Switzerland wanted a “council that responds to the needs of victims and vulnerable groups”.
More specifically the council needed to encourage universal respect for independent rapporteurs, who were coming increasingly under attack for unfavourable reports and were often refused visits by states.
Culture of confrontation
Among the countries to opine about the council, Bahrain described it as a “qualitative leap” in the field of human rights and Yemen said it was “always at the forefront” of the struggle for protecting human rights. Both countries’ human rights track records are criticised by Amnesty.
Botswana however was “deeply concerned” at its lack of progress in countering racism, while Brazil noted that one of its basic challenges would be overcoming a culture of confrontation and selectivity.
Most had praise for the council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process by which all 192 members of the UN are scrutinised by other countries on their own track records.
Non-governmental organisations are among the fiercest critics of the council, many believing the council is controlled by a bloc of Islamic and African states who protect each other from criticism. Meanwhile, the European Union, Canada, the US and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have all said there is a disproportionate focus on Israel.
Some say as a UN organisation it is no better than its predecessor, the now defunct Commission on Human Rights.
“It’s worse,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based UN Watch, told swissinfo.ch.
“If we look at the discredited Commission on Human Rights, which Kofi Annan said was rife with selectivity, politicisation and credibility, [at least] you had resolutions on China. Today no one even thinks of making them.”
His organisation has compiled a “scorecard” of votes and resolutions made by the council since its creation – the results of which he will present in a council session on Monday. He says two-thirds of members have voted against human rights mechanisms or basic principles such as free speech, while over half of the resolutions were counterproductive to human rights.
“Anyone who would claim to be optimistic [about improving the council] is not being realistic. But we haven’t given up, we’re here, we want to make this work.”
UN Watch believes that the US will need to play a key leadership role, as de facto leader of the opposition at the council, a group of 12 democracies that routinely oppose regressive measures and defend human rights positions.
“They were always historically the leader of any strong mechanism. The US absence was a contributing factor why things got worse. Now the US is back. There’s one thing that both Republicans and Democrats agree, that they want US membership on the council to hold the most serious abusers to account.”
UN Watch has called on the US to refocus the work of the council by doing just that, as well as defending the rights of NGOs, opposing the election of violators to the council and strengthening the UPR.
“There are some very good things in the council and there are some things that are going very badly,” commented Peter Splinter, Amnesty International’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva.
“Our major criticism is that this council isn’t looking at situations of serious human rights violations whether they’re acute or in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Zimbabwe where they are chronic and have been going on for a long time.”
There is also a trend in the council to try to intimidate independent and NGO voices, with some losing their accreditation, and talk of the need for rules to regulate NGO conduct, he said.
On the plus side, assessments by the UPR were creating domestic dialogue and countries that would not have been considered under the former commission are reviewed now as a matter of course.
But as part of the review people should first be asking if the council has achieved the mandate set out by the UN General Assembly, Splinter says.
“Before we start talking about any reform and changing the rules, let’s agree to apply the rules that have already been established.”