Once upon a time, the United Nations was about protecting human rights and Eleanor Roosevelt was the chairman of its premier human rights agency, the Human Rights Commission. This week, the U.N.’s top human rights body, renamed the Human Rights Council, is poised to add Libya to its membership. Libya will be elected by the U.N. General Assembly through a secret ballot in a process that champions geographic and religious loyalties over anything remotely resembling the actual protection of human rights.
The Obama administration is making no moves to call for the defeat of Libya or any of the other soon-to-be human rights specialists now running for a seat. And yet, the 2009 State Department Human Rights Report says that in Libya there is routine torture and abuse of detainees, legally-sanctioned amputations and flogging, sentencing of political opposition members without trial, indefinite detention of women and girls “suspected of violating moral codes,” homosexuality is criminalized, and their president claims that “the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah are forgeries.”
Libya will not be lonesome. Other candidates include Malaysia, Mauritania, Uganda, Angola and Qatar. The 2009 reports from the state department on all these Council shoe-ins tell us the following: in Uganda there are politically-motivated killings by the government, and law enforcement officials view wife-beating as a husband’s prerogative. In Angola there is government torture, widespread rape of inmates, and Internet chat rooms are monitored. In Malaysia, religious authorities arrest “deviants” in order to return them to the "true path of Islam.” In Qatar the law calls for 10 year sentences for individuals proselytizing anything but Islam, conversion away from Islam is a capital offense, and the legal system treats with leniency men who murder women where there has been “immodesty” on the part of the victim.
The Obama administration’s “speak no evil” approach when it comes to choosing U.N. human rights authorities marks the second time in less than a month that the administration has kept silent about handing a global platform to human rights offenders. Once ensconced on these human rights bodies, such states are given the legal and political tools to avoid democracy, champion moral relativism, criticize free speech, demonize Israel, and exonerate Muslim extremists.
On April 28, 2010, the U.N. elected Iran a member of its main women’s rights agency, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). After EYEontheUN found the outcome buried in U.N. documents and Fox News brought the result to national attention, prominent women’s rights activists around the country began gathering signatures urging Secretary of State Clinton, at a minimum, to denounce the move after the fact. They will remind her of the famous 1995 declaration she delivered at the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Fifteen years later, Democratic priorities have changed.
Evidently, there was a backroom deal on Iran, which until recently was on the ballot for the Human Rights Council elections. The United States would look the other way when it came to an Iranian seat on the Women’s Rights Commission, if Iran withdrew its candidacy for the Human Rights Council. While the Obama administration, European Union members, and even some U.N. officials, worried Iran’s election to the Council would be a potential embarrassment, they had no such sensitivities about a women’s rights agency.
On the contrary, senior State Department officials balked at any criticism of the U.S. over the CSW result, telling Fox News "there is no opportunity" to object. "That is not how the procedure works…because Iran faced no competition." But the “our-hands-are-tied” claim was as untrue for CSW as it is now for the Human Rights Council elections set to bring in a host of human rights abusers.
Elections to the Council are held within the framework of the U.N.’s five regional-group system, with each group entitled to a fixed number of seats. In theory, even if a regional group put forward only the same number of candidates as it has seats, General Assembly members could object to a state’s candidature and refuse to vote yes. The rules require each state to get a majority of the members of the General Assembly, or 97, in order to be elected. If any state fails to accumulate 97 votes, the group would be forced to proffer a new candidate or another could step forward.
The U.N. Human Rights Council was created in 2006 on the grounds that the 60-year-old Commission had a “credibility deficit,” as former Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally admitted. One of the main pieces of evidence contributing to the demise of the Commission’s moral authority was the 2003 election of Libya as its chairperson. It took the Council – said to be Annan’s crowning reform achievement – only four years to reach the Libyan credibility deficit.
The Obama administration made joining the Council one of its very first foreign policy priorities, and the United States was duly elected in May 2009. The Bush administration had decided not to seek a seat on the Council on the grounds that the reform had been a sham.
President Obama and his advisors were fully aware of the Council’s record of non-stop denunciation of Israel coupled with white-washing of human rights violations around the world.
The statistics speak for themselves. There have been more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all other 191 U.N. member states combined. In fact, only nine other states have been criticized by the Council at all. There have been 13 regular sessions of the Council on human rights anywhere in the world, and six special sessions devoted to Israel-bashing alone. The Council has a standing agenda of ten permanent items, one of which is devoted solely to criticism of Israel and one which is devoted to everybody else if and when the Council decides there are “human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.”
Among its most telling omissions is the case of Iran. Iranian leaders openly advocate genocide and actively transform their ideology into lethal practice. Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism and is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the Council has never had a single special session on Iran or even adopted a single resolution condemning Iran.
But the Obama administration didn’t care that the Human Rights Council doesn’t do human rights. They wanted to be part of the showmanship of human rights, where the pretense of concern is the highest aspiration of the assembled dignitaries. Such dignitaries include current Council members like Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Russia, Egypt, and Kyrgyzstan.
The General Assembly resolution that created the Council made promises about the election process. It says that when electing Council members, the General Assembly “shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.”
In 2006 and 2007 all states – knaves included – made voluntary pledges. In each of 2008 and 2009, one state didn’t bother to make a promise to protect human rights. This year, five states so far haven’t said a word about their interest in human rights protection. Almost every one of these countries has something in common – six out of seven are members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The OIC states have a reason to believe they are untouchable by the U.N., by its human rights system, and by the Obama administration. States which are members of the African and Asian regional groups hold the majority of the Council’s 47 seats, and the majority of members of each of the African and Asian groups are from the OIC, which gives them the balance of power. After Thursday’s election they will hold 70% of the seats of each of these two regional groups, handing them a greater chokehold on the Council than ever before.
The pledges made by states standing in Thursday’s election make a mockery of the process of becoming a UN human rights authority figure. Mauritania pledged:
“The right to not be detained arbitrarily, to not be subjected to torture and to be granted a fair trial ...represent the most important guarantees…The right to equality between individuals and the right to non-discrimination in all its forms...has been guaranteed…”
But as the 2009 State Department report points out, in Mauritania torture in prisons is common practice, slavery is openly practiced in parts of the country and almost every baby girl is subject to female genital mutilation before six months of age.
Come Thursday, the majority of members of the U.N.’s lead human rights body will still not be fully free democracies according to Freedom House rankings and the numbers of non-democracies on the Council will actually increase. The balance of power will be held by Islamic states. States will be elected to the Council without bothering to make any undertakings about protecting human rights, and several of the states that do make pledges will lie about their intentions. Members will include states with some of the worst human rights records on the planet.
And the Obama administration, having made no move to defeat a single human rights abuser now poised to jump on board, will be a part of it all – an active member lending the Council’s dangerous anti-human rights activities the cover of legitimacy.
Anne Bayefsky is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust.
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Anne Bayefsky is director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust. Follow her on Twitter @AnneBayefsky.