Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

Betraying the Trust: A Human Rights Council for Human Rights Abusers

Friday, May 12, 2006

This week's election of the UN Human Rights Council has been a disaster that has handed the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) a major victory at the UN. The United States' decision not to run for a Council seat proved to be prescient. The Organization of the Islamic Conference now holds the balance of power in the new primary UN human rights body, which stands at the center of 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 UN's five regional blocs.

As a result, an astonishing twenty-one of the forty-seven 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 UN's central human rights organ are China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, all of which obtained three-year terms. 62% 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% 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: Azerbaijan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, and Tunisia. The length of the terms was subsequently decided by lot, and more than half of the OIC states received the maximum three-years.

Moreover, 32 of the 47 new Council members hail from the Group of 77, the same bloc of states in the UN system that has presented a united front against UN management reform. Only last week, the G-77 cast aside a 19-year tradition of operating by consensus in the UN budget committee and forced the states paying over 85% of UN bills into the minority. They put a plan to institute greater flexibility and accountability back on the shelf. The same dynamics are certain to carry over into the Council, where the G-77 fancy themselves on a principled mission to defend the right to development against democratic or rights-respecting pre-conditions.

So how does the new UN's human rights authority look? Human Rights Council Member 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 "[D]enial of the right to change the government; physical abuse resulting in deaths in custody; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; 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. The Government requires organized religions to submit and obtain official recognition prior to conducting any religious activities. The number of "house churches," where members meet secretly...has increased. Since 1994, the 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 Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Cuba into the country. The General Assembly electorate ignored Cuba's record of non-cooperation with UN investigators, including the denial of visits from the UN Rapporteurs on freedom of opinion and expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers.

And then there is Human Rights Council member Saudi Arabia, a place where women can't vote, drive, or even dress themselves in clothes of their own choosing.

The botched reform effort to fix the UN Human Rights Commission will have real consequences. Resolutions condemning particular states for egregious human rights violations are highly unlikely ever to occur again (except in the case of Israel). The upper-hand is now firmly with states having this list of priorities: "defamation of religion" (by which the UN means special protection of Islam and the limitation of free speech), development over democracy, and root causes over the war against terrorism. The human rights abusers now in the drivers' seat will use the Council as 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. The trust of genuine human rights victims has been violated. The UN's main human rights body, which once again provides refuge for human rights violators, is an insult to human rights activists and people of good faith everywhere.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has called on the President to "consider establishing 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." His clarion call has become an imperative for all those who care about the effective protection of human rights.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Washington Times