Op-Ed: Joining U.N. rights council is a lost cause


WASHINGTON (JTA) — On May 12, the United States won election to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. The only reason for joining such a morally bereft institution, however, would be the fanciful hope of reforming it. Those with experience dealing with the council suggest differently, offering that we should expect outcomes not much different than that of the old U.N. Human Rights Commission that the council replaced. The countries, the issues and, in some cases, the diplomats are the same.

Therefore, how can we expect different policies and how can we expect to change them? We should not dignify the Human Rights Council’s twisted view of human rights by joining such a lost cause.

The council serves as a mockery of human rights advocacy and adjudication. It is beset by a membership that comprises a core group of serial human rights abusers and despotic regimes. And through rigid bloc voting, these members use their numerical superiority to extend their struggle with Israel to yet another venue.

Let’s examine those we’re joining on the council and how they conduct themselves.

In March 2007, the council passed a resolution on defamation of religion that denies free speech or criticism of religion because it will hurt the feelings of its adherents. By passing such an odious measure, the council shows what it thinks about human rights. I wonder though what the sponsors of this resolution feel about protecting criticism of Judaism in their countries, many times by their own government personnel. Protecting Judaism, however, was not their goal.

The council that passed this resolution counts among its members such serial human rights abusers as Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba, which Freedom House just included in its “Worst of the Worst 2009” report on human rights. All three were considered “Not Free.”  According to Freedom House, of the 47 countries on the council there are 22 “Free Countries,” 16 “Partly Free Countries,” and 9 “Not Free Countries.” This means that more than half of the members of the council are at least only partly free if not totally unfree countries.

The member states, through their majority status, stifle any possible show of independence from their members by enforcing bloc voting with the strongest among them dictating policy — policy that runs clearly contrary to our core values, such as free speech. The problem on the council, according to one person, is that “some members look at it arithmetically.”

A Democracy Coalition Project study explains this point further, saying that “The current style of ‘bloc’ politics at the council has led to negotiations among regional and cross-regional groups that are increasingly conducted behind closed doors and pursue consensual outcomes. In many cases, this has prevented states from speaking independently and clearly on serious human rights concerns."

Later the study adds, "The OIC [The Organization of Islamic Countries], with 15 members on the council during the 2007-2008 cycle, carried more weight than any of the single regional groupings" and the OIC "frequently spoke and voted as a group, and was joined in its positions on many issues by the African Group, as well as Cuba and Nicaragua. Additionally, as the report stated, ‘The OIC generally supported the African line on opposing country scrutiny with one major exception, the Occupied Palestinian Territory.’ ”

Indeed, these states use their stranglehold on the council to bypass very real human rights abuses and even genocide around the world, preferring instead to castigate and stigmatize Israel. Last June, while decrying the U.S. refusal to continue its engagement with the council, Human Rights Watch could not avoid pointing out these important facts about the council, explaining that “In its first two years, however, the Human Rights Council has failed to address more than 20 human rights situations that require its attention, eliminated human rights monitoring in places desperately in need of such scrutiny, and adopted a long stream of one-sided resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories which failed to consider the roles and responsibilities of the Palestinian authorities and armed groups.”

Moreover, according to the Democracy Coalition Project study, “Human Rights Council Report Card, 2007-2008,” “While the Council considered numerous country situations throughout the year, it acted only on a few. It failed to effectively address several unfolding human rights crises, such as Zimbabwe and Tibet, or speak forcefully on ongoing situations as urgent as Darfur.”

Since its inception, the council has held 10 special sessions, five directed at Israel. This sounds frighteningly familiar to the council’s predecessor, the U.N. Human Rights Commission.  Between 2001 and when it was disbanded in 2006, the UN Human Rights Commission passed 26 resolutions and one decision that were critical of Israel. The situations in North Korea, Burma and Sudan warranted a combined total of 11 resolutions and decisions during the same period.

Nothing has changed from one UN human rights body to another. Why then are we joining this broken institution? Despite its best intentions, the Obama administration will be unable to make the U.N. Human Rights Council effective. Leaving the Human Rights Council to wallow in its own hypocrisy without dignifying or legitimizing its Orwellian view of human rights is the best option.

(Gregg J. Rickman served as the first U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism from 2006 to 2009. He is a senior fellow for the study and combat of anti-Semitism at the Institute on Religion and Policy and a visiting fellow at The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism at Yale University.)

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