You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but that is exactly what U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s proposal to reform the deeply flawed U.N. Human Rights Commission is trying to do. Our outspoken U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, used a slightly more diplomatic metaphor when he denounced the efforts to replace the commission with a new Human Rights Council, calling it “not a butterfly,” and he vowed to vote against the proposal. In this case, Mr. Bolton found backup from as strange a bedfellow as the New York Times editorial page, which tells you something about just how inadequate the reform proposal is.
Now, reform of the old Human Rights Commission is long overdue. The Geneva-based subsidiary of the United Nations has, in recent times, called unfavorable attention to itself by including in its membership of 53 egregious human-rights abusers, such as China, Libya, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
The problem here is the U.N. system of regional representation, which allows each region to select its own representative regardless of the country’s political system or human rights record. That is how, a few years back, we found Sudan on the Human Rights Commission, while the United States was deselected in the group of Western countries to which it belongs. This despite the fact that we continue to pay 22 percent of the commission’s budget. It is also how, briefly, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq took the chairmanship of the disarmament committee in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
It may also be noted that another U.N. organization, the U.N. Educational and Social Committee (UNESCO) just recently awarded President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela a human rights award, presented by none other than Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. This would be laughable were it not so outrageous.
Not surprisingly, countries with a poor record on human rights have used their membership to block any vote castigating their practices, while gleefully taking aim at others, usually the United States and Israel. The newly published U.N. Human Rights Commission report on Guantanamo Bay is a case in point. Without the U.N. rapporteurs ever going to the base and relying for a large part on newspaper accounts and former inmates, the report outrageously accuses the United States of engaging in torture and urges that “all persons found to have perpetrated, ordered, tolerated or condoned such practices, up to the highest level of military and political command be brought to justice.”
Unfortunately, though, there is widespread understanding that the old commission didn’t work, the Human Rights Council, which is part of a reform package Mr. Annan is trying to push to a quick vote, represents almost no improvement. Though the council is to “take into account” a proposed member’s human rights record, there is no rule even for countries under Security Council sanctions to be excluded.
The membership, which was far too large for the old commission to function effectively, merely shrinks from 53 to 47. The predominance of membership shifts to Africa and Asia, which have 55 percent of the members. Special sessions can be called by two-thirds of the council’s members and states have to rotate out of the council after two three-year terms. Also, the council would be given the mandate to follow up on commitments made at U.N. conferences and summits, many of which end up with conference statements entirely antithetical to the United States.
Ideally, the issue of human rights should be dealt with by an international body not connected to the United Nations, whose membership indiscriminately includes the good, the bad and the ugly. The world has a plethora of international watchdog bodies that could be called into service if we do not want to set up a new one. Most important, however, would be a set of objective, verifiable standards that would, for instance, make democratic governance, freedom of expression, assembly and religion and constitutional minority-rights protections preconditions of membership. Such a body would give human-rights protections real meaning and possibly teeth.
The United States should lobby its allies to vote no along with us in rejecting this first draft for Human Rights Commission reform. The draft will do nothing to further the cause of human rights and only make for more U.N.-style politics. This issue is of too great importance to go along to get along, and Mr. Bolton was right to administer the shot across the bow that he did to Mr. Annan.