Sixty years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, bringing enlightened principles to a world darkened by the depths of inhumanity.
A year of commemorative events culminated in a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in December that was attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other dignitaries.
But there is little to celebrate.
Todayâ€™s council is a body that fails to honor the legacy bequeathed by Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin, founders of what originally was known as the Commission on Human Rights.
Created in 1946, the commissionâ€™s initial achievements in setting human rights standards gave way to posturing as authority shifted from distinguished idealists to cynical governments. Countries with appalling human rights records like China and Sudan became regular commission members in order to shield their own records of abuse. As a result, year after year, the commission gave a free pass to most of the worldâ€™s worst violators while instead targeting Israel in half of its resolutions. In 2003, Libya was elected chair. This caught the worldâ€™s attention.
In 2005, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan finally acknowledged that “the commissionâ€™s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations.” Annan’s reform plan replaced the commission with a new body that promised to herald, in the words of former U.N. human rights chief Louise Arbour, “the dawn of a new era.”
But with more than half the countries on the new Human Rights Council failing to meet basic democratic standards, reform quickly turned to regression. As documented by U.N. Watchâ€™s new 38-page study, Eleanorâ€™s Dream, the 47-nation body is dominated by an alliance of repressive regimes that seek to spoil needed reforms and undermine the few meaningful mechanisms that already exist.
Consider the mandates for experts — individuals charged with investigating violations in specific countries or championing specific freedoms. These mandates often are cited by the European Union to justify their support for the council, which the the United States refused to join on grounds the 2006 reform was a sham. Now, one by one these mandates are being eliminated or overturned.
In June 2007, under pressure from the Non-Aligned Movement, council members eliminated the experts meant to monitor human rights in Belarus and Cuba. Havana trumpeted the political victory. Six months later, the council quietly abolished its investigative team on Darfur. An “excellent decision,” said the Sudanese ambassador.
In March 2008, after the monitor on the Congo reported massive violations, including sexual violence, the council scrapped his position. If this early warning mechanism had survived, would the recent bloodletting have been prevented? We will never know.
In September, the council cut its expert on Liberia. The monitor on Sudan is slated for elimination at the March 2009 session.
The council has further subverted the expert system by appointing pseudo-intellectual rogues to esteemed positions. Its favorites are Jean Ziegler, a Swiss radical who in 1989 co-founded the “Moammar Qaddafi Human Rights Prize,” and Richard Falk, an American who supports conspiracy theories arguing that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.
Even more alarming is the Orwellian twisting of core mandates. In March, the councilâ€™s annual resolution in defense of free speech was rewritten by Islamic states so that it now seeks to police the “abuse” of this freedom — in effect to prohibit cartoons or any other statements deemed offensive to Islamic sensitivities.
The move was only one of many resolutions at the council, which is dominated by Islamic states, that prohibit the “defamation of religion”, especially Islam. That concept is foreign to international human rights law, which protects individuals, not one set of beliefs or another.
Last week, an Algerian-chaired subcommittee of the council, connected to the so-called Durban II racism conference, shocked Western states and human rights activists with a proposal to revise the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by introducing a ban on defamation of religion. Unlike declaratory resolutions, this would alter hard treaty law, directly affecting legal systems worldwide.
Finally, out of a total 25 censures adopted by the supposedly reformed council since 2006, 20 have been against Israel. That’s 80 percent.
Sixty years since Eleanor Rooseveltâ€™s dream, there remains much darkness before the dawn.
The author is executive director of U.N. Watch.