The UN has elected a brand new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. Why was the old HRC discredited? Well, basically and officially, because several of its members were known to violate human rights and/or to protect their own interests. It is only logical. However, who will be taking a seat in the new and improved HRC? Right, some of those very same countries that were known to violate human rights: China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
In all fairness, Zimbabwe did not get elected this time around and, according to Human Rights Watch:
it was noteworthy that some countries with the worst human rights records had not put themselves forward as candidates, despite the prior membership of many on the old Commission on Human Rights. The group hoped that this reflects those governmentsâ€™ assessment that they stand little chance of winning a General Assembly majority when voters are obliged to consider a candidateâ€™s human rights record.
â€œThe good news is that many of the worst violators â€“ including Sudan, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, and Nepal â€“ have not even dared to run for the new council,â€ said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. â€œNow it is up to U.N. members to exclude other abusive governments so that the council can be a real champion for human rights.â€
In order to help the UN make a better choice this time, Human Rights Watch set up a special website summarizing the human rights records of the other candidates.
Letâ€™s see what they say about Saudi Arabia:
Human rights violations are pervasive in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy. Despite international and domestic pressure to implement reforms, improvements have been halting and inadequate.
While many governments have praised recent developments in China, the country remains a one-party state that does not hold national elections, has no independent judiciary, leads the world in executions, aggressively censors the Internet, bans independent trade unions, and represses minorities such as Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongolians.
Six years after seizing power in a coup dâ€™etat, President Pervez Musharrafâ€™s military-backed government did little in 2005 to address ongoing human rights concerns, such as legal discrimination against and mistreatment of women and religious minorities, a rise in sectarian violence, arbitrary detention of political opponents, harassment and intimidation of the media, and lack of due process in the conduct of the â€œwar on terrorâ€ in collaboration with the United States.
Now, I do not want to single out these particular countries, there is a lot more badness going around worldwide, but what use is any human rights body if offending countries are part of it?
Foreign Policy Magazine stated in March of this year (emphasis mine):
The Commission was mostly a finger-pointing committee, but the new council has a much stronger mandate. It is designed to help countries on the ground, which may include, for example, providing legal advice on U.N. treaties or helping to develop national human rights policies. Another strength is that the councilâ€™s mandate calls for follow-up on the resolutions it passes, which means fewer issues will be allowed to fester without at least council acknowledgement. (â€¦) To fulfill its potential, the council needs the United States to play a strong role in shaping its methods, rules, and procedures as it develops into a real institution. The new bodyâ€™s first test will come in May, when wannabe members will be voted on for the first time. If the GA is able to keep abusers off the council, it would go a long way toward ensuring the bodyâ€™s success. If the United States joins like-minded nations in making that happen, it may find last weekâ€™s compromise to be â€œgood enoughâ€ indeed.
Legal advice on treaties? Develop policies? Wow, that is going to be efficient. And the US needs to play a strong role? Sure thing.
I do not want to get too cynical, but even that emphasized first test has already failedâ€¦ Partly, anyway. And what human rights body is going to force big players like the US and China to play according to the rules? I mean, I am all for human rights, but how are you going to enforce those rules? It is one thing to use â€˜officialâ€™ human rights records to slam other countries, and this may have some effect in their respective pr-departments, but I fail to see how any of this can have a real impact.
On a personal note, I once dreamed of becoming a â€˜blue helmetâ€™. I wanted to work for the UN peace corps. You know what changed my naÃ¯ve young mind? The dismissal in 1982 of Theo van Boven as director of the UN Division of Human Rights because he had criticised Argentinaâ€™s track record on human rights too harshly at the time:
As director of the UN Division of Human Rights, van Boven argued consistently that concern for human rights should not be a marginal activity within the UN system, but should become the core element of development strategies on all levels. He sought to break through the selective approach of the UN in human rights matters, and to deal more consistently with the gross violations of human rights in a large number of countries on all continents, including enforced disappearances, torture, summary and arbitrary execution, and discrimination against indigenous peoples.
He contributed to the creation of fact-finding mechanisms in these areas in order to bring pressure on defaulting authorities and to provide relief to victims. He was concerned also to identify the root causes of human rights violations in connection with the development process, patterns of economic and political domination, militarisation of societies and racial discrimination. In addition, he worked hard to strenghten the links of his office with non-governmental organisations.
Van Boven’s uncompromising approach to these matters led to major policy differences in the UN Secretary General, which in turn led to his UN contract being terminated in 1982.
Okay, maybe I do not know everything about his dismissal, feel free to correct me, but Van Bovenâ€™s departure made me doubt the value of having an international human rights body. I love being idealistically naÃ¯ve and I hate cynicism, but sometimes I fail to be impressed by great expectations:
China supports the creation of the new UN Human Rights Council, which will strengthen the body’s role in this field, Zhang Yishan, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said on Wednesday. (â€¦) Zhang told the General Assembly: “The international community and people all over the world lay great expectations on the council.
“They all hope that the council will play its due role, and more effectively enhance all human rights and fundamental freedoms at global level,” Zhang said.
Zhang pointed out that the draft resolution stresses that civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, and the right to development are interlinked and equally important.
Please, prove my cynicism wrong this time.