This week’s election of the U.N. Human Rights Council has been a disaster that has handed the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) a major victory at the U.N. The U.S. decision not to run for a council seat proved to be prescient. The OIC now holds the balance of power in the new primary U.N. human-rights body, which stands at the center of Kofi Annan’s failed reform plans.
The major defect of the old commission was that it had no standards for membership; the human-rights abusers ended up on the inside, deciding what counted as abuse. The council’s creators repeated the mistake when they failed to agree on any substantive human-rights criterion for candidacy. The General Assembly instead adopted a resolution in March that made geography the only limiting factor for membership, distributing seats among the five regional U.N. blocs.
As a result, an astonishing 21 of the 47 states elected are not fully democratic, or “free,” according to Freedom House’s 2006 annual Freedom in the World report. Among the most notorious human rights abusers now seated inside the central U.N. human-rights organ are China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia, all of which obtained the maximum three-year terms. In fact, 62 percent of the countries elected to the council were members of the commission at dissolution.
The new council has also been restructured to give the African and Asian regional groups a 55 percent majority. By contrast, the proportion of seats that the “Western European and Others” group previously enjoyed on the commission was further reduced. In Tuesday’s vote, the OIC successfully engineered campaigns to win a majority of the places reserved for both the Asian and African regional groups, thereby emerging with the controlling interest at the council.
Seventeen members of the OIC were elected, including Azerbaijan, Algeria, Cameroon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
Moreover, 32 of the 47 new council members hail from the Group of 77, the same bloc of states in the U.N. system that has presented a united front against U.N. management reform. Only last week, the G-77 cast aside a 19-year tradition of operating by consensus in the U.N. budget committee and forced the states paying over 85 percent of U.N. bills into the minority. The same group dynamics are certain to carry over into the council.
So how does the new human rights authority look? China abuses the human rights of more people than any other country on earth. According to the 2006 State Department report on human rights, in China there is “ enial of the right to change the government; arbitrary arrest and detention; a politically controlled judiciary; monitoring of citizens’ mail, telephone and electronic communications;…forced abortion and sterilization…” Council member Algeria violates every fundamental tenet of religious freedom. The State Department 2005 Annual Report on Religious Freedom says of Algeria: “The law prohibits public assembly for purposes of practicing a faith other than Islam; [T]he size of the Jewish community has diminished to virtual nonexistence due to fears of terrorist violence; Due to safety concerns and potential legal and social problems, Muslim converts practice their new faith clandestinely.” Cuba was elected to the council despite the fact that it has never allowed the Personal RepresentativeoftheU.N.High Commissioner for Human Rights on Cuba into the country. The General Assembly electorate ignored Cuba’s record of noncooperation with U.N. investigators, including the denial of visits from the U.N. Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers.
And then there is Saudi Arabia, a place where women can’t vote, drive or even dress themselves in clothes of their own choosing.
The botched reform effort will have real consequences. Resolutions condemning violations in particular states are highly unlikely ever to occur again (except in the case of Israel). The priorities for the states with the upper-hand are: “defamation of religion” (and the limitation of free speech), development over democracy, and “root causes” over the war against terrorism. The council will be a global platform to confuse victim with perpetrator and right with wrong.
Human-rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which praised the council’s creation and the elections as positive developments, have compounded the disaster. Evidently, they are no longer prepared to play the outsider’s role of speaking truth to power.
While the spin from many is that the council appears to be a bit better than its predecessor because one or another human-rights rogue is not a first-time member, the reality is quite the opposite. The political will for change has been squandered; the pretense of reform following the old college try was not supposed to be the goal. A human-rights body that provides refuge for human-rights violators is an insult to human rights victims and people of good faith everywhere.
April’s clarion call by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to establish “a council of democracies outside of the U.N. system that could meet regularly to truly monitor, examine and expose human rights abuses around the globe” has become an imperative for all those who care about the effective protection of human rights.
Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, professor at Touro Law Center and editor at EYEontheUN.org.