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January 29, 2008

The UN Remains The UN

Two years ago, Kofi Annan hailed the end of UN's Commission on Human Rights as a step towards removing the malignant politicization of the UN, and especially its anti-Israel bias. The replacement Human Rights council would have safeguards on both membership and voting to ensure against a repeat of the Israel obsessions of the CHR. It would demonstrate the responsiveness of the UN and rebuild confidence in the institution as a legitimate arena for global relations and for enforcement of human rights.

How has that worked out? Not well -- according to a UNICEF spokesperson:

Last week the U.N. Human Rights Council held an emergency session, organized by Arab and Muslim nations, to condemn Israel for its military actions in the Gaza strip. That the council is capable of swift and decisive action is a welcome surprise; that Israel remains the only nation to provoke such action is not. In the 17 months since its inception, the body has passed 13 condemnations, 12 of them against Israel.

The council replaced what was widely viewed as a cancer on the United Nations -- an ineffectual "Commission on Human Rights" that also had a single-minded focus on Israel. According to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "the selectivity and politicizing of its activities [were] in danger of bringing the entire U.N. system into disrepute."

The removal of the diseased commission two years ago was heralded by U.N. officials as "the dawn of a new era." Its replacement was designed to have stricter standards for membership, and rules to prevent politicized voting. But such safeguards were neutered by the time the new Human Rights Council was approved, and the results are that the council is no better than its predecessor.

The problems begin with the council's composition. Only 25 of its 47 members are classified as "free democracies," according to Freedom House's ranking of civil liberties. Nine are classified as "not free." Four -- China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia -- are ranked as the "worst of the worst." These nations are responsible for repeated violations of the U.N.'s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it is they who dominate the council, leading a powerful bloc of predominantly Arab and African nations that consistently vote as a unit.

The results clearly show that the UN has done nothing to improve oversight on human rights. The fact that the worst violators remain on the panel showed that Turtle Bay had no intent to force real reform. The reshuffle and letterhead change provided only a new gloss on very old corruption and scapegoating, and the product of the HRC shows the lack of effective change.

Ronan Fallow believes that the UN can still somehow provide a real forum for human rights, but not in the present form of the HRC. He recommends that it get dismantled and rebuilt. However, the problem doesn't originate in the HRC but in the UN itself. A body dominated by totalitarian human-rights abusers will not produce any panel that will seriously look at the real perpetrators of oppression and misery. Instead, as they have done twice now, they will generate committees that deflect attention away from themselves.

Who benefits from the HRC? Right now, the biggest beneficiary is the Sudan. Despite numerous attempts to get the HRC to address the genocide in Darfur, the panel has steadfastly refused. Why? Because the African nations on the panel don't want the scrutiny, and China gets its oil from the Sudan and doesn't want to disrupt trade. Fallow notes the repeated efforts by the West to get a condemnation from the HRC for the very real genocide occurring under the nose of the UN, and meanwhile all the HRC wants to review is Israel.

Until the UN significantly reforms itself and its membership, any panel at Turtle Bay will remain suspect. Any panel on human rights that includes China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia as judges of violations of human rights is by definition a sick joke, and reflects on its parent organization as the same.


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