Toronto Star

Turning ‘arsonists into the fire brigade’

- Rosie DiManno Twitter: @rdimanno

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.

Somalia? Really?

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

 ?? FABRICE COFFRINI AFP/GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO ?? The United States rejoined the United Nations Human Rights Council last week after former president Donald Trump quit in 2018. The 47-member council has a dreadful history of including countries with abysmal records on human rights, Rosie DiManno writes.
FABRICE COFFRINI AFP/GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO The United States rejoined the United Nations Human Rights Council last week after former president Donald Trump quit in 2018. The 47-member council has a dreadful history of including countries with abysmal records on human rights, Rosie DiManno writes.
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