Posts tagged ‘un human rights council’

March 30, 2012

In Defense of the Dictator’s Club

In what should be no surprise to anyone who has had an eye on Geneva in the last few weeks, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon had a piece published in Foreign Policy‘s “Argument” section. The topic? The UN’s continuing unfairness towards Israel, in an article titled “Theater of the Absurd”. In this particular instance, the Deputy Minister has an issue with the Human Rights Council’s latest vicious attack against the much-maligned state, claiming that the body has been hijacked, much like the Commission on Human Rights before it.

Last week, at its 19th Regular Session, the UN HRC passed a resolution launching an investigation of the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank by Jewish citizens of Israel. The vote on the matter was 35 in favor, 1 against, and 10 abstentions, with the lone “no” vote cast by the United States. Pay attention to those numbers, as they become important later.

In response to the decision, Israel has not only forbidden access to its territory to any investigation under the resolution’s mandate, but severed all working ties with the Human Rights Council. This is the environment in which the Deputy Minister penned his Foreign Policy article. In it, he cites the continued presence of tyrannical states on the Council as a preclude of its legitimacy:

Only 20 of the 47 nations on the UNHRC, a minority, are considered “free” by the independent NGO Freedom House. The majority of nations currently represented on this self-styled “human rights” body do not allow basic freedoms for their own people, let alone concern themselves with global civil liberties.

The current roster of the UNHRC is a virtual who’s who of global human rights offenders: It includes Cuba and Saudi Arabia — not to mention Mauritania, where modern-day slavery is an entrenched phenomenon. Last year, while Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi was massacring his own people, the Human Rights Council drafted a report full of praise for the former dictator’s regime for its “protection of human rights.”

Let’s work our way backwards in examining these claims. The report the Deputy Minister mentions is the Universal Period Review, a mechanism the UNHRC has developed to look at the human rights records of every UN member state, Libya in this case. The New York Times article Ayalon cites pulls some choice quotes out of this draft UPR, signaling the corrupt nature of the endeavor. The praise from a who’s who of international pariahs comes across as highly disturbing. The problem with this narrative, however, lies in the fact that none of the states listed were members of the Human Rights Council at the time. Rather, the rapporteurs for each report, in this instance Argentina, Norway and Senegal, solicit input from literally every member state of the UN. Plenty of other states registered concern at Libya’s rights record in that text, and the recommendations for reform at the end include several that were rejected by Libya.

Minister Ayalon’s concerns about the makeup of the Council are somewhat valid, and we’ll address those shortly. However even by his math in the quoted text, something is off. In the event all the “not free” states voted in favor of the resolution, which they did, that wouldn’t give thirty-five votes, the number actually case. As it turns out, some of those free countries, such as Austria and Belgium, joined their non-free counterparts. The rest of them, save the United States, chose to abstain on the draft, rather than putting forward a no vote. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Deputy Minister’s position that the Council is being hijacked. Were Austria and Belgium forced to vote yes? Were the ten states who abstained muzzled? I would think not.

As I indicated before, I do have to concur that it is still disturbing that rights violators often make it onto the Human Rights Council. This is less a product of willful maliciousness but an unwritten set of rules in Turtle Bay. Most bodies like the HRC fill the seats through an allotment of a certain amount to each Regional Group at the UN. These groups then produce consensus candidates which take up their seats regardless of human rights records in the HRC or contributions to international peace and security in the Security Council. The fact that Togo sits on the UNSC this year is as much a fault of this system as Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council.

The Deputy Minister is also correct that Israel has had more resolutions specifically targeted at it than any other state. As he says, many human rights abuses escape inquiry at all. However, he is incorrect in asserting that the HRC refuses to make strides against legitimate cases of rights violations. For example, the work of the Council over the past year with regards to Syria are extremely commendable. Several special sessions have been held alongside the appointment of a special Commission of Inquiry to investigate the situation. Likewise its swift action against Libya last spring belies the normal argument that the Human Rights Council is full of dictators who are loathe to depose one of their own.

Many of these positive outcomes from the Council is a byproduct of the United States’ deciding to engage with and seek a seat on the Council, rather than shunning it as originally planned. It is with that in mind that the state of Israel should think much harder about its position towards the United Nations. I will readily admit that there does exist a bias among many of the Member States against Jerusalem. This has been reflected by the insane number of resolutions passed in the General Assembly condemning the state. But the solution is not, as Ayalon seems to suggest to pick up the ball and go home (emphasis mine):

Perhaps it is time to establish a new organization that more faithfully adheres to a true human rights agenda. Democracies should reassess their participation in a council that places political calculations over the protection of human rights, while providing cover to some of the world’s most brutal regimes.

The need to institute reforms at the United Nations is apparent to anyone who’s spent time studying it. But the idea of starting up a new organization, a League of Democracies as has often been fantasized about, should remain just that: a fantasy. For democracies putting off ties from states that do not fully live up to Western standards would be a critical mistake, especially when they outnumber you. Rather, constructive engagement is key to rising all states to the same level, rather than bringing them down as Ayalon seems to suggest.

In reality, the Human Rights Council is no more a “Theater of the Absurd” than Ayalon’s outrage is a farce. The Deputy Minister asserts that Israel will remain willing to work with UN inquiries that “don’t already confer guilt”, but if such inquiries are approved, or silently condoned, by those Israel would invite to a new organization, where does that leave Jerusalem?

March 23, 2012

Who Are We?: The US, Race, and the Human Rights Agenda

The nineteenth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is taking place in Geneva this month. The United States is currently a member of the UNHRC, after much bemoaning of how it would be yet another playground of dictators and rights abusers. Joining up was the right choice; it’s hard to influence change on the outside looking in. Since the US first won a seat on the Council, much substantive work has been done on how to better improve the living conditions of peoples around the world, living in unimaginable conditions, facing the threat of death or worse each and every day.

And yet, as representatives of these Member States meet halfway around the world, I find myself compelled to ponder on the place that the United States holds in the human rights community. If you were to ask any averge American, we are clearly the apex, the zenith. We see ourselves on the world stage a lynchpin; as the US goes, so should the world go in terms of the norms that should rightly be championed. Freedom of speech. The right to worship as you please. The idea that your government has the responsibility to care about your well-being, rather than attempting to make your lot in life worse.

That’s how we like to see ourselves, and yet when the mirror is held in front of our faces, what do we see? Our metaphorical eyes prefer to dance around, averting our gaze from anything that mar our visage. How is it so easy to gloss over the imperfections and ignore the things that need to be fixed at home? President Obama spoke out on the Trayvon Martin killing this morning. His words hit home, and I felt the need to pen some of my own. For those who haven’t heard somehow, the story is one of a seventeen-year old, wearing a hooded sweatshirt as he walked through his neighborhood, who was shot in the chest and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain. The story has changed several times on the exact rundown of the situation and the legality of George Zimmerman’s actions. But Trayvon is still dead and Zimmerman is still outside of custody.

As I said on Twitter, my teenage years were spent in Flint, MI, also known as one of the most violent cities in the country. But I loved it, for the education it gave me, the people I met, and not once did I walk down the streets with fear in my heart. That lack of fear came from a few key factors: thanks to my six-foot frame, I don’t precisely scream ‘victim’; a youthful belief in one’s own invincibility; the lack of items of value in my possession to have taken; and, almost most important, the color of my skin. I looked like the majority of the people in the city, which is to say I am a black man. Any idea that I would be assaulted or harassed because of what I looked like was alien to me as I moved through the avenues of downtown Flint after dusk.

I walked through Flint without fear. The idea that I would be less safe today walking down the streets of a suburb in a hooded sweatshirt than I was in Flint horrifies me. It’s absolutely unfathomable that the status of race-relations in this country, the self-proclaimed greatest on Earth, is at the point where the murder of a young black man is simply shrugged off for days, weeks, until people finally took notice. It’s with no small amount of shame that I admit even I ignored the story until it gained momentum.

Among the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, itself drafted largely by the United States, are the rights to life, liberty, and the security of person, regardless of race or color among other traits. Where were those rights when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed? Where are those rights now, as his assailant and killer still walks free? The US has come a long way in moving towards the society described in the UDHR since it was first adopted; in theory blacks are the equals of all other races in our society, a laughable claim in 1948. And yet in the very systems that would ensure that equality, there does still exist an imbalance among our citizens, shadows of the past that cannot be denied or hidden from or scoffed at.

My friends who know me well will probably be surprised to read this post. It’s not often I like to discuss race relations, as my relations with races are above par. But this situation rings differently. For one, it could have been me; I can’t count the number of times I’ve strolled through affluent neighborhoods in a hoodie and jeans, late at night, and my skin the same shade as ever. More importantly, it could be one of my future children. I intend to raise them well, whenever they come, and teach them right. But you can’t teach someone to look different. That’s one thing you can never shield someone from. And my heart breaks at the idea of having to explain to them why they would need to be shielded at all.

The United States speaks with conviction on the spread of human rights around the world, led at the United Nations by Ambassador Susan Rice, a black role model in her own right. As we move forward, our human rights agenda must continue to be as forceful as it has been in recent years. The vigor with which we pursue equality and justice for human beings around the world cannot abate. But we, as a country and as a people, need to take pause and make sure that the lessons we seek to impart on the world are not falling on deaf ears at home. We should be an example of our own goals for the world, free from qualifications, and free from excuses.

November 28, 2011

The Results are In: Syria is Kind of Horrifying

Back in March, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized a fact-finding mission to the Syrian Arab Republic to determine the extent of the alleged human rights violations taking place within its borders. The results of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria have been released, in the form of a 39-page document submitted to the UNHRC. What has been given is both broad in scope and grim in nature.

I’m attempting to read through the entire thing and pull out key pieces but it’s becoming apparent as I read through that it’s impossible to pick out ‘the worst part’. They’re all ‘the worst part’. Mark Goldberg has a write-up on some of the low-lights here. But you really just need to read the report for yourself.

I will say, one section really caught my eye and made me read it more than once to truly grasp the enormity of what it was saying. A good number of the over 200 interviews granted to complete this report were given by defected members of the Syrian security forces. This is an excerpt:

“The protesters called for freedom. They carried olive branches and marched with their children. We were ordered to either disperse the crowd or eliminate everybody, including children. The orders were to fire in the air and immediately after to shoot at people. No time was allowed between one action and the other”

The report serves to make a few things abundantly clear. President Al Assad has in the past asserted that the Syrian Arab Republic was “facing a great conspiracy” at the hands of “imperialist forces”. There is absolutely no way to construe this report other than an utter takedown of the fallacy in that statement. The commission was set up by the UN Human Rights Council, which just three years ago was seen as a pawn for the very tyrants they were meant to be investigating. In launching the commission, the President of the HRC set-up a panel of three experts: Brazilian professor Paulo Pinheiro, serving as Chairman; the Commissioner of the UNRWA Karen Abuzayd; and the Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women Yakin Ertürk. These three are hardly the face of the Imperial West and any attempt to spin them as such will and should be promptly laughed at.

It also comes on the heels of the UN Commission Against Torture speaking out against Syrian abuses:

“Among [the reports] are cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees; rife or systematic attacks against civilian population, including the killing of peaceful demonstrators and the use of excessive of force against them; and the persecutions of human rights defenders and activists,” said Claudio Grossman, who currently heads the 10-member panel.

“Of particular concern are reports referring to children who have suffered torture and mutilation while detained; as well as cases of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; arbitrary detention by police forces and the military; and enforced and involuntary disappearances,” he stressed.

There has yet to be word from the Russian Federation on how this report will change their views in the Security Council. The Arab League finally slapped sanctions on Syria, which many are saying will have a much sharper impact than previous US and EU sanctions have in the past. The sanctions include:

  • Cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank
  • Halting funding by Arab governments for projects in Syria
  • A ban on senior Syrian officials travelling to other Arab countries
  • A freeze on assets related to President Bashar al-Assad’s government

Iraq and Lebanon abstained on the vote, which under Arab League rules allows them to opt out of the sanctions. Whether they will participate or not is still unclear. Russia, however, seems unmoved by this show of regional disdain towards al-Assad. Having met with Arab League envoys, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia still seeks “compromise, without ultimatums” in solving the crisis. I’m hoping that this report and the atrocities it lists changes the tune of Vitaly Churkin in the Security Council, but I’m not holding my breath just yet.