By a vote of 165 to 7, a UN General Assembly committee last Friday approved “institution-building” changes to the Human Rights Council that actually weaken or eliminate several of its key institutions. The package scraps the independent investigators of abuses in Cuba and Belarus, makes it harder to criticize specific countries for violations, and institutes the permanent censure of Israel as a fixed agenda item, an initiative pushed by the group of Islamic states.

The U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel and three Pacific Island states voted in opposition. The European Union countries supported the package, arguing it was the best possible compromise to preserve a functioning council.

The changes were first adopted on June 19, 2007 by the Human Rights Council in Geneva under dubious circumstances. As documented by a UN Watch photo timeline, “How the Human Rights Council Was Born” — an eye-opener into the dark side of international law and diplomacy — the package was rammed through in middle of the night, with Canada denied its right to vote. The council then proclaimed that it was unanimously approved, with vice-president Dayan Jayathilake of Sri Lanka saying, “there is a consensus that there was a consensus.” As shown in the timeline, UN documents were then doctored to hide the irregularities. Although the U.S., Canada, and Poland filed official objections in July, the outright revision of history was ignored by UN officials.

During last week’s debate, Canadian officials recalled how the chair in June had used “procedural manoeuvring” to sideline Canadian delegates as they sought to call a vote at that time on the package. “We categorically reject the manner in which the … package was pushed through at the council,” said Henri-Paul Normandin, Canada’s deputy representative at the UN. “Canada was denied its sovereign right to call a vote … (and) in using the ends to justify the means, the human rights council set a very dubious precedent.” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said a national election conducted in the same way the council sidelined Canada would be declared “unfree and unfair.”

In a campaign led by UN Watch, some 30 NGOs from around the globe urged General Assembly members to excise the regressive measures. However, Western states claimed that opening the package would jeopardize the mechanisms of the council that work.

How much actually works in this new era—with a council almost entirely dominated by the agenda of repressive regimes—is questionable. The backsliding of the past year has no precedent. The democracies are outnumbered, on the defensive, and losing badly.

The new changes of the package include the following:

  • The experts who reported on human rights violations in Cuba and Belarus were eliminated. This came even as the General Assembly a few days later adopted a resolution condemning Belarus for silencing political opposition, arbitrary detention, harassing journalists—and for its non-cooperation with the human rights council expert on Belarus that the UN itself had just fired.
  • Placing the remaining 10 country monitors—who report on atrocities in places like Sudan and North Korea—on the chopping block, in what it euphemistically calls a “review” process.
  • A new rule—deceptively crafted as a mere guideline—that will make it harder than ever before to pass any resolution criticizing a human rights abusing country by name.
  • A so-called “code of conduct” which was designed by China, Algeria, and the council’s other authoritarian regimes in order to cow independent human rights monitors into silence.
  • The permanent indictment of Israel under a special agenda item, reviving what the UN Department of Public Information described last year as “the agenda item targeting Israel.” This was publicly criticized by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on June 20, 2007, as a breach of the council’s own principles.

There was, however, a rare glimmer of light this week, when a General Assembly committee—the same one that approved the above package—managed to rebuke some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. A resolution on North Korean violations passed by 97-23, with 60 abstentions. Another resolution strongly condemned violence against peaceful demonstrators in Burma, now known as Myanmar, with a vote of 88-24, with 66 abstentions. A third vote expressing deep concern at rights violations in Iran passed by 72-50, with 55 abstentions.

What this means, ironically, is that while support for meaningful human rights action can still be found in some UN bodies, the 47-nation Human Rights Council is not one of them.


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