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How the Abusive Protect the Repressive at the U.N.


Monday, Dec. 06, 2004

Sudan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Russia: one thing these countries have in common is that their governments violate human rights flagrantly and systematically. But another thing they share, astonishingly enough, is membership on the U.N. body meant to monitor and prevent human rights violations.

Pakistan, China, Egypt, Congo--the list goes on. When it comes to rights-abusing countries, the 53-member U.N. Commission on Human Rights has plenty of depth.

An official U.N. report released last week owns up to the problem. Acknowledging the commission's "eroding credibility," it notes that counties that "lack a demonstrated commitment" to human rights are not particularly well-suited to the task of promoting respect for human rights globally. (This is a diplomatic way of saying that known robbers should not be hired as cops.)

It would be wonderful to be able to say that the United Nations has now come up with a good plan to address this problem, and that reform is on the way. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the U.N. report includes a plan, it's not a good plan, or even an adequate one.

Protecting the Abusive from Censure

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have been complaining about the U.N. commission's membership problem for years. The focus of the abusive governments on the commission, Human Rights Watch warns, is on "minimizing the exposure of their own human rights record rather than on stigmatizing the worst human rights violations in the world and devising methods to bring about effective responses to these abuses."

The recently-released report on the future of the United Nations deserves credit for acknowledging this issue, except that the problem is clearly too glaring to ignore. Eight months ago, at its last annual session, the commission's trend toward rejecting censure of its most abusive members was unmistakable.

Not only did the Commission on Human Rights fail to pass resolutions critical of China, Russia (for Chechnya), and Zimbabwe, but some of these resolutions were not even discussed. Both the Chinese and Zimbabwean governments relied on a procedural device, known as the "no-action motion," to prevent their resolutions from coming to a vote.

The commission's response to the Darfur crisis also left something to be desired. At a moment when tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing ethnic cleansing in Sudan, the commission failed to pass a resolution condemning the country's grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, instead adopting a decision expressing watered-down concerns about the situation.

Even worse, the following month, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) voted to keep Sudan on the commission for another three years. (ECOSOC's decision to reelect Sudan was reminiscent of its decision, in 2003, to reelect Cuba to another term on the commission in the immediate wake of that country's crackdown on political dissidents.)

No one would suggest seating Jean-Claude Duvalier and Gen. Augusto Pinochet on the International Criminal Court, so why put the countries that are their equivalents on the U.N.'s main human rights body?

Reforming the Commission

The new U.N. reform report grasps the problem but fails to propose an effective solution for it. Indeed, judging from recent events, its main recommendation on membership - to expand the commission to include all 191 U.N. member states - could even worsen the situation.

The record of the U.N. General Assembly, which includes all U.N. member states, is instructive. Just two weeks ago, the General Assembly's human rights committee rejected a resolution condemning violations in Darfur. Ninety-one countries voted in favor of the "no action" motion that killed the resolution, while only 74 voted against it.

John Danforth -- the U.S. representative to the United Nations, who has worked hard to draw attention to the atrocities committed in Darfur -- didn't mince words in responding to the vote. "The message from the General Assembly is very simple," he said. "'You may be suffering, but we can't be bothered.'"

He continued: "One wonders: If there can't be a clear and direct statement on matters of basic principle, why have this building? What are we all about?"

Membership Criteria

A better proposal for reform has been made by Human Rights Watch. Rather than expand the commission to include any country, no matter what how awful its track record, Human Rights Watch recommends that the commission develop membership criteria that would bar abusive countries from joining.

Most obviously, countries that have recently been condemned by the commission for human rights violations should not be given a seat. Other membership requirements could include: ratifying the main human rights treaties; being up-to-date with reports to the United Nations on compliance with human rights conventions; and cooperating fully with U.N. investigators. And one might add that any country that is under U.N. investigation for genocide and crimes against humanity should be barred as well (in other words, a country like Sudan).

The U.N. reform report opposes creating criteria for membership on the commission, concluding that such proposals might further politicize the issue of human rights. It does not explain the reasoning behind this view, but one can assume that the authors of the report were afraid that the politicized debates that currently take place in the substance of the commission's work would simply extend to the debate over membership.

There are two ways of responding to this concern. First, the U.N. should concentrate on developing clear criteria that can be objectively applied, like the ones listed above. While these requirements might not be entirely effective in sorting the good countries from the bad in terms of human rights, they will at least screen out a meaningful number of the worst violators.

Second, the U.N. should remember what's at stake. While it can be difficult to keep politics from tainting human rights judgments, it is not impossible. If the Commission on Human Rights is to do meaningful work, these issues should be addressed before countries become members. If the U.N. waits until Zimbabwe and Sudan have seats on the commission, then it's already too late.

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney. This is her second column on the United Nations' response to egregious human rights violations; the first column is available in FindLaw's archive of her columns, as are her previous columns on the human rights crisis in Sudan. The views expressed in her column are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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