Will the U.N. Human Rights Council Do the Right Thing and Keep Syria Out of Its Ranks?

We should probably be grateful that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) finally took a stand and suspended Libya from the global human rights watchdog body—the first such suspension of one of its 47-members since the council was established in 2006.

But in what looks like a bid to replace one oppressive, terror state with another, the Human Rights Council (via the General Assembly) is now considering Syria for a seat.

After suspending Libya, the UNHRC has a chance to continue its “streak” of making good choices by denying Syria a seat judging other nations on their human rights record and commitment. Syria competes for a spot in May overseeing other nations’ commitments to universal human rights. Will the U.N. do the right thing?

Having just returned from a series of meetings in Geneva in conjunction with the 16th council session, I am not entirely optimistic that the HRC can learn from its own mistakes.

It was only after the Libyan government brutally and viciously attacked its own people that the council finally acted against one if its own members, formally suspending Libya on March 1.

Decades of state-sponsored terror, the jailing of dissenters, torture as a standard police tactic and countless other denials of freedom weren’t enough to disqualify Libya from a seat on the world body’s premier mechanism for protecting and advocating for human rights. So while we are relieved Libya was suspended, we have to point out the deep faults of a U.N. system that allows such a country to be included in the first place.

According to the resolution that created the HRC, "members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights." Could anyone truly believe Syria meets that criteria? The HRC blatantly disregards its own mandate time and again.
Unfortunately, with the council’s track record and membership (notorious human rights abusers such as North Korea are scarcely mentioned by the panel; Zimbabwe was once a member) it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it would act against Libya and it was encouraging to see the council took this quick and decisive step.

Syria is a one-party state with no free elections. Sound familiar?

Syria is a major supporter of international terrorism—backing Hezbollah and hosting some of the leaders of Hamas.

Government critics and human rights activists are routinely jailed in Syria. There are an estimated 2,500-3,000 political prisoners in Syria’s jails who have never been tried. The country has been under emergency rule since 1963, the better to allow the state to use excessive force and power to oppress its people.

Syria tightly controls internet access and blocks such social networking sites as Facebook and YouTube.

The independent Freedom House, which for 70 years has observed global human rights and democracy issues, in its 2010 annual “Freedom of the World” survey, included Syria near the bottom of the rating scale for both political rights and civil liberties issues.

Does this sound like a government that should be determining which nations are committed to universal human rights?

Every four years, the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review process reviews the human rights record of each of the 192 member nations. A frightening number of nations use the opportunity to praise their rights-abusing allies. Reviewed in November, Libya was commended for its human rights record by nations including Syria:

“[Libya] has a unique experience in democracy based on the people’s authority…this has allowed for the growth and development, promotion of human rights, which is in full conformity with its commitments under international law and in full conformity with its cultural and religious specificities,” a Syrian representative said.

The report is now stalled due to Libya’s suspension. But Syria’s on-the-record praise is telling of its commitment to human rights.

There are very serious and compelling human rights issues in the world today. By admitting offender after offender, the United Nations is demonstrating that perhaps actually protecting human rights is not as important as talking about protecting rights. In the council’s five years, as a rule, politics trump human rights.

Our delegation just met with senior officials in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as with ambassadors from more than 25 countries. During some of our meetings with council leaders, we addressed key obstacles inhibiting the world body, including ending the anti-Israel permanent agenda item and the special rapporteur on Israel. B’nai B’rith also reiterated that Israel is the only country denied inclusion in Geneva in its natural regional group. Also its membership in New York in the Western European and Others Group, known as WEOG, does not extend to Geneva.

Acting on these issues would demonstrate the HRC’s renewed commitment to living by its stated principles.

It is our hope that in bringing the council face to face with some of its major faults, it will begin to see its inherent hypocrisy. An important step is to not admit Syria to its ranks.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President.