Who will guard human rights at the UN?

Neither the Mexican nor the Swiss candidate for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has shown any inclination to stand up to egregious violators.

Word from the 38th floor of United Nations headquarters in New York is that Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is in the final stages of filling the newly vacant - and globally influential - post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. To find the right person, Ban must ask his candidates tough questions. More than anything, the UN rights chief must be a person of moral clarity, courage and principle, ready to take on powerful political forces in defending victims of gross violations around the world. He or she must guard the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the dream of Eleanor Roosevelt that now marks its 60th anniversary - from those who trample them in places like Harare, Teheran or Pyongyang. It's a tall order. Who's in the running? According to The New York Times, Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's envoy to the UN in Geneva, is a leading candidate. UN insiders report that, among others, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey is also vigorously campaigning. While Mexico and Switzerland have the right to nominate diplomats and politicians of their choice, Ban has the duty to question their records. To seal a $28 billion gas deal, Calmy-Rey recently visited with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As world leaders attempt to shun the fanatical regime - the head of which denies the Holocaust, incites to the elimination of a UN member state and illegally pursues the nuclear capability to carry this out - Calmy-Rey chose to pose smilingly with Ahmadinejad, while wearing the Islamic headscarf. "What disappointed me was Calmy-Rey's attitude during her visit," said Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and women's rights advocate. "She knew about the human rights situation in Iran; I even had the chance to speak to her about it beforehand. But once there she never mentioned the human rights situation in Iran, nor met any human rights defenders, not even myself. The only thing of interest to her was the business deal." Calmy-Rey's strongest endorser is her longtime political confidante from Geneva, Jean Ziegler, the 1989 co-founder of the Muammar Gaddafi Human Rights Prize, whom she recently named as a senior adviser to the UN's discredited Human Rights Council. Is she to be the world's designated champion of human rights? THEN THERE is De Alba. He invokes his qualifications as the inaugural president of the Human Rights Council in 2006-2007. Yet this was a period of unprecedented decline. Reform turned into regression. While the chair is not responsible for the votes of member states, Ban must probe the Mexican diplomat's actions in the areas under his discretion. What did De Alba do to check the council's dark inclinations, as opposed to appeasing them? The record shows that on De Alba's watch, the new council gave a pass, time and again, to the world's worst abusers. Its resolutions praised Sudan - despite the unrelenting atrocities in Darfur - for "cooperation." When De Alba named an "independent" inquiry panel on Darfur in 2007, why did he defer to the powerful Arab, Islamic and African alliances that support the Khartoum regime, picking government representatives of sympathetic allies, instead of an all-expert panel? "We were surprised by the method employed by [De Alba]," French UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert said at the time. "We missed a good chance to send independent personalities... This is not a good message." On what basis did De Alba give assurances that Sudan would cooperate with this Darfur mission - when in fact the regime blocked its entry and attacked its report? History will record that under De Alba's tenure, the council granted effective impunity to all of the world's worst human rights violators. Instead, it targeted Israel in every single one its condemnatory resolutions -10 in one year. From July to November 2007, the council called three special sessions against Israel, legitimizing terrorism committed by Hamas and Hizbullah. The Arab-initiated exercises were so extreme and one-sided that even frequent critics of Israel, both among member states and organizations such as Amnesty International, decried their bias. So why did De Alba defend the sessions as "completely justified"? The culmination of De Alba's term was his negotiated reform proposal of June 2007, which he labeled "a great diplomatic success... a decision of historic dimensions." In fact, his package eliminated the council's protective mandates for human rights victims in Belarus and Cuba, and instituted a "review" of remaining mandates, which has already resulted in ending the investigation of abuses in the Congo, where four million have died. De Alba's package also included an Algerian-sponsored "Code of Conduct" for independent human rights experts, designed solely to intimidate them from criticizing repressive regimes. Why did De Alba defend this package, saying, "The end result was highly positive"? In the words of The Wall Street Journal, "Council president Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico drafted a set of rules that mock the institution's very mission." How he adopted these rules was even worse. De Alba trampled basic due process by pushing his package through in the middle of the night, in the wee hours of June 19, 2007, famously denying Canada its right to vote and challenge the package. I TOO experienced the Mexican representative's justice when taking the council floor, on behalf of UN Watch, to challenge the council's record. De Alba's response was simply to reject my speech as "inadmissible." He threatened to strike any similar remarks from the record. The episode, seen 300,000 times on YouTube, earned him the rebuke of leading newspapers and blogs around the world. Though De Alba did not initiate the council's worst distortions of the language and idea of human rights, he gave it cover, repeatedly hailing the council, among other things, as "very open." By contrast, his successor, Ambassador Doru Costea of Romania, publicly questioned the forum's balance and credibility. As the council continues its downward spiral, imposing, in the name of Islamic sensitivities, ominous restrictions on freedom of speech within council debates as well as around the world, an independent, principled and courageous voice in Geneva's inner sanctum is more necessary than ever. The writer is executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, currently visiting Jerusalem.