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Commend, don’t attack, U.N.’s Pillay

To the Editor:

Hillel Neuer, a representative of UN Watch at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, surprised many of his NGO  colleagues when he launched a vitriolic attack on Navi Pillay, the U.N. commissioner for human rights — an attack he repeated in an article carried by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 9.

We have watched with increasing dismay over the years as the Organization of the Islamic Conference and its allies have tightened their grip on the Human Rights Council, but we have been cheered by Pillay’s readiness to speak out promptly about human rights abuse anywhere in the world. Neuer is incorrect in describing the council as being “part of Pillay’s human rights apparatus in Geneva.” Just as the Office of the High Commissioner is independent of the council, a political body, so the council is independent of the high commissioner.

Elections to the council are by democratic vote of the member states of the United Nations in the General Assembly. It would not only be ultra vires for the high commissioner to comment on elections to the council, it would be institutional suicide.

Pillay is the strongest and most independent-minded high commissioner since the late lamented Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was brutally murdered with 20 of his staff in Baghdad in 2003. Pillay has been among the first to challenge the dictatorial regimes in the Middle East. She was the first to speak out against the use of live ammunition by the security forces in Bahrein and the bombing of Libyan civilians last month.

Without Pillay’s early intervention, it is highly unlikely that the council on Feb. 25 would have taken the unprecedented step of requesting Libya’s suspension from the council. (Incidentally, Neuer incorrectly says the council itself suspended Libya’s membership, but only the U.N. General Assembly has the power to do that, and it did so on March 7.)

Neuer went on to condemn Pillay for her support for Najat Al-Hajjaji, a senior Libyan diplomat. He condemns Al-Hajjaji not for attempting to block or soften any statement on Libya; not for any sins of commission or omission in her long and distinguished career; not for her performance as chair of the Durban Review Conference; and not for acting partially as so many have done, but simply for being a Libyan. Does Neuer, a Jew, not understand the appalling dangers of condemning anyone on the basis of their nationality or ethnicity?

By all means attack the Human Rights Council for its extreme selectivity and gross bias — as our organization did only last week, comparing its swift and effective action on Libya with its passivity over the most appalling examples of human rights abuse in Iran, Sudan and elsewhere. But let us salute the courage and independence of Navi Pillay, a woman prepared to stand up for the victims of human rights abuse wherever they may be.

Roy W. Brown
International Humanist and Ethical Union
U.N. Geneva

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