Rogues’ Gallery at UNHRC

If UN persists in treating autocratic gov'ts the same as democratic states, global human rights agenda will be perpetually manipulated, and perhaps even hijacked entirely.

UNHRC wolf cartoon 311(do not publish again) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
UNHRC wolf cartoon 311(do not publish again)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
QUESTION: WHAT DO LIBYA, EGYPT, BAHRAIN, Tunisia and Algeria have in common? The obvious answer is that all five of these Arab states have had to deal with widespread unrest and rebellion this year, and all have used brutal force to crack down on their own anti-government civilian protesters.
But there’s something else they share in common: At some point during the last five years – and as recently as this year – each of these authoritarian Arab governments has sat on the highest international body responsible for the monitoring of global human rights norms – the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the body that gave South African judge Richard Goldstone the mandate for his controversial report on the 2008-9 Gaza War.
In Libya’s case, the government’s brazenly murderous campaign against its own citizens, which began well before the civilian uprising became a full-fledged insurrection, finally forced the UN to take action. On March 1, the UN General Assembly voted unanimously to suspend Libya’s membership in the UNHRC. Yet, even with this unprecedented move, one would be hard pressed not to conclude that the international community itself bears partial responsibility for the atrocities that have been committed by the regime of Muammar Gaddafi against the Libyan people.
In May last year, 155 out of 192 UN member states voted to empower Libya to sit in judgment of other countries on human rights. They did it with the full knowledge that despotic regimes such as Gaddafi’s seek membership on the UNHRC precisely to evade scrutiny and censure. Incredibly, not a single Western state raised its voice in protest against Libya’s candidacy or election.
Still, when it comes to the UN and human rights, Libya’s election to the UNHRC could hardly be considered the most glaring case of hypocrisy. In 2004, for example, the genocidal Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir was re-elected as a member in good standing of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the predecessor of the current council. Two years earlier, Libya, abysmal human rights record and all, was elected to chair the commission by a vote of 33 to 3.
Are we now to applaud Libya’s suspension from the UNHRC? It should never have come to this point. It wasn’t until the CNN and Al Jazeera TV networks began broadcasting graphic, bloody images of Gaddafi’s forces systematically slaughtering Libyan civilians that the UN finally saw fit to remove the fox that it had foolishly entrusted to guard the hen house.
But what did we expect, after all, from a UN body that resembles more a rogues’ gallery of the world’s most repressive regimes than a human rights monitor? One need only look at the makeup of the current UNHRC even without Libya. Sitting on the council are such beacons of human rights as Bahrain, China, Cuba, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
In fact, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, half of the current members – 23 out of 46 – fail to meet basic standards of democracy. And if that’s not absurd enough, Iran, an Islamic theocracy and major sponsor of terrorism that has called for Israel to be wiped off the map, is vying for a seat on the council in the upcoming May election. So is Syria, a virtual police state whose security forces are now also brutally crushing dissent.
For years, Israel, which won’t be elected to serve on the UNHRC anytime soon, has repeatedly complained that the council singles out the Jewish state for condemnation while ignoring truly egregious human rights violations elsewhere. Since 2006, 70 percent of the council resolutions censuring specific countries have focused on Israel, whereas no action has ever been taken on China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia or Syria.
Although the US, Canada, two former UN secretaries-general and even Goldstone himself have expressed deep concerns about this blatant discriminatory treatment, no changes to this inherently corrupt dynamic have been forthcoming. The absence of appropriate membership standards means that even countries with appalling human rights records will continue to win seats on the council for the foreseeable future.
Thus, in the upside-down moral universe of the UNHRC, the Middle East’s only democracy is subjected to an endless drumbeat of indictment and demonization, fueling the global movement to isolate and delegitimize Israel. In the meantime, the world’s worst human rights abusers continue to commit unspeakable atrocities with impunity, making a mockery of the council’s mission.
Libya’s suspension from the UNHRC may have been a positive step, but if it doesn’t spawn genuine reform, it will prove to be largely meaningless. If the UN persists in treating autocratic governments the same way as democratic states, it will ensure that the global human rights agenda will be perpetually manipulated and hijacked.
The United States, therefore, should work to bypass – if not abolish altogether – the UNHRC and champion the creation of an alliance of democracies to monitor and safeguard human rights, prevent genocide and promote human dignity. Put simply, serious human rights issues must be left to the collective moral judgment of states committed to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association and due process.
For the cause of human rights in the years ahead, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Robert Horenstein is Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon.