Turning ‘arsonists into the fire brigade’
You know that old Groucho Mark wisecrack? “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.”
It’s a sentiment that should be extended to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Last week the United States re-upped, elected back in to the conclave by the UN General Assembly on an uncontested slate. Then-president Donald Trump had quit the gang in 2018, arguably one of the few things his administration got right.
The 47-member body holds staggered elections for threeyear terms and has a dreadful history of including nations with abysmal records on human rights. As a result, and quite by design — apart from other ill-judged pronouncements — it has a disproportionate focus on criticism of Israel. Last May, at the end of a one-day special session, a resolution was adopted on the “grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” The council’s only standing agenda item targets one single country — Israel. Also, just three days before this most recent vote, the Council endorsed, again, a resolution affirming support for the notoriously anti-Israel 2001 Durban Conference which concluded that Israel, alone among all nations, is guilty of racism.
In, besides the U.S.: Argentina, Benin, Cameroon, Eritrea, Finland, Gambia, Honduras, India, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Montenegro, Paraguay, Qatar, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates.
Just look at some of those fine upholders of human rights, women’s rights, democracy and multi-party political elections.
Getting the nod, as is widely acknowledged, means cutting quid pro quo backroom deals, twisting arms and sweetening favours.
“The absence of competition in this year’s Human Rights Council vote makes a mockery of the word ‘election’,” said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director for Human Rights Watch. “Electing serious rights abusers like Cameroon, Eritrea and the United Arab Emirates sends a terrible signal that UN member states aren’t serious about the council’s fundamental mission to protect human rights.”
Cameroon, as a for instance, has suppressed opposition, crushed dissent and persecuted the LGBTQ community. Eritrea has been accused of committing widespread atrocities in neighbouring Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor has been imprisoned without a mattress, in neartotal isolation, said Charbonneau.
Already (and repeatedly) on the council, drawing from five worldwide geographical regions: Russia, which has instituted a gay propaganda law, institutionalizing state-sponsored homophobia; China, a one-party regime harshly condemned for driving a million mostly Muslim Uyghurs into detention camps in Xinjiang; and its ham-fisted crackdown on Hong Kong; Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has strangled all political opposition and free speech; the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte (who’s claimed he won’t stand for re-election next year) imposed draconian polices that have resulted in extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers; Cuba, where human rights have long-been abandoned; Turkey, Libya and, until a year ago, Saudi Arabia.
Last October, Riyadh lost its bid to keep its seat, in large part because the U.S. unequivocally pointed the finger at the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the ordered execution of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The Kingdom has also imprisoned multiple women’s rights activists where, according to human rights authorities, they’ve been whipped, electrocuted and sexually assaulted.
Independent monitoring group UN Watch, based in Geneva, has described allowing China, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan to serve on the UNHRC as akin to “making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade.”
Yet these are the countries which pass judgment on the human rights performance of other countries. Including, it should be recalled, slamming Canada in 2014 for its treatment of Indigenous people — which, admittedly, Canada had coming. In June, in a tit-for-tat after Canada joined 40 other countries urging China to allow “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” for independent observers to visit Xinjiang, Beijing turned the tables, demanding that Canadian authorities “stop violations of human rights,” inveighing against this country for past mistreatment of Indigenous people after discovering of the remains of hundreds of children in mass graves at or near residential schools.
It is hard to throw stones. No nation has an untarnished history. But some are far beyond the pale, their abominations and barbarities in the here and now.
The UN’s human rights council was established in 2006 as a successor to the even more discredited UN Human Rights Commissioner. Canada hasn’t had a council seat since 2008.
For Washington, last Thursday’s vote was all but in the bag, given a voting system under which uncontested seats are often allocated in advance. The debate has raged over whether its better to fight the council’s biases and absurdities from within, pulling up a chair at a table where members more frequently protects human rights abusers, via international inquiries, “fact-finding” missions and recommendations, or give the disgraceful collective a wide berth.
Trump, of course, withdrew the U.S. from as many multilateral agreements and organizations as he could get his small hands on, including the Paris Agreement on climate change. The George W. Bush administration had also retreated; Barack Obama returned, agreeing the council was flawed but a U.S. presence would give a voice to victims of human rights violations.
Immediately after his election, President Joe Biden made it clear that “America was back,” eager to re-engage with the world — a vow broken with its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, handing that poor, benighted country back to the Taliban.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that Trump’s withdrawal “did nothing to encourage meaningful change, but instead created a vacuum of U.S. leadership, which countries with authoritarian agenda have used to their advantage.”
On Thursday, announcing reclamation of its seat, Blinken said in a statement: “We will work hard to ensure the Council upholds its highest aspirations and better supports those fighting against injustice and tyranny around the world. The path towards the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms will be filled with challenges. The United States commits to continue this steadfast pursuit, at every opportunity, with any and all countries that will join us.”
However, Blinken also conceded that the council “suffers from serious flaws, including disproportionate attention on Israel and the membership of several states with egregious human rights records.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s ambassador to the UN, said the U.S. would use its seat to advance human rights in such places as Ethiopia, China, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and, yup, Afghanistan.
Not that the council has given any indication it will adopt even electoral reforms.
Further, many observers see in America’s restoration to the council yet another stage for wrangling with China over, well, world domination. Beijing has become increasingly assertive at the UN, going on the offence to revise agency norms while weakening oversight scrutiny of human rights abuses. Last year, China rallied 53 countries, including 13 then sitting on the council, to defend its brutal intervention against peaceful protests in Hong Kong, while only 27 countries signed a statement criticizing Beijing’s actions.
This useless council is in desperate need of counselling on human rights.
It is hard to throw stones. No nation has an untarnished history. But some are far beyond the pale, their abominations and barbarities in the here and now