Rot showing in UN human rights body

By Rosa Freedman, August 23, 2013
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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Photo: AP)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (Photo: AP)

The United Nations Human Rights Council protects, promotes and develops international human rights. It is the UN’s principal human rights body.

The council was created seven years ago because its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, had failed.

Much of that failure was down to the body being politicised, biased and selective. A quarter of all of its resolutions about countries focused on Israel. Not one resolution was passed on China. Known human rights abusers frequently gained seats on the commission and used their positions to protect themselves from criticism. The final nail in the coffin was when Gaddafi’s Libya chaired the Commission.

It appears that the council is heading towards the darkest days of the commission. Fourteen new members will be elected to the council in November. It is shocking to note some of the states that are standing for election. Unfortunately — and unsurprisingly — some of the worst human rights abusers are hoping to sit on the council. Algeria, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and — if diplomatic channels are believed — Syria will all be candidates in November’s elections.

Soft membership criteria mandate that candidates ought to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Supposedly, countries’ human rights records are taken into account during elections. In reality, most states are more concerned with a country’s politics than its human rights violations. It seems unlikely that many states will pay more attention to Russia’s recent homophobic laws and practices than to that country’s economic and military might.

The same is true of China — despite ongoing oppression of minorities, occupation of Tibet, harassment of journalists and detainment of human rights defenders. And that is before we even consider that Syria — in the midst of a humanitarian crisis with Assad’s regime butchering its own people and forcing tens of thousands to flee for safety — might be elected.

The council’s record on Israel has been as biased and selective as its predecessor. Israel does commit serious human rights abuses. But the Israeli occupation of Palestine is by no means the only, or the most serious, conflict occurring within the world. Yet the council has disproportionately focused on Israel. Almost a third of its Special Sessions have centred on Israel. Not one has been convened about Egypt, despite the brutal and bloody crackdowns on protesters over the past two years. No attention was given to China during the build-up to the Olympics, despite it forcibly evicting entire villages and towns to build stadiums, parks and roads for the Games. The body has ignored election violence, torture and killings in Zimbabwe in 2008 and again this year.

Over the past seven years, the council has disappointed all those who hoped that the body would overcome its predecessor’s failings. November’s elections look set to cement that: despite the vast resources pumped into creating the organisation, the new body is little more than a carbon copy of the commission.

When grave abusers are able to influence the UN’s human rights policies, develop new rights and determine which countries to focus on, the legitimacy and credibility of that body are called into question.

It took the commission six decades to reach the point where its credibility was wholly undermined by its membership and its actions. The Council may well reach that point before its first decade has finished.

Dr Rosa Freedman is a law lecturer at the University of Birmingham

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 23 2013