Accessibility links

Critics Worry UN Human Rights Commission Has Lost Moral Authority - 2004-04-06

The 60th annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission is now taking place in Geneva. Major concerns have been deteriorating human rights in Nepal and the Madrid bombings that killed 191 people. But critics say in general the commission is doing too little for human rights, its efforts often stalled by member countries like Cuba, Libya, Syria, Sudan and Saudi Arabia that are among the worst human rights violators. VOA’s Serena Parker reports on a recent conference in Washington that discussed whether the UN Human Rights Commission can continue to function the way it is supposed to.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission was created in 1947 to promote human rights around the globe. When they are violated, it is required to press the international community to take action. But it has no enforcement powers.

Critics say especially in recent years, it has affirmed nearly every conceivable human right while ignoring flagrant human rights violations in some of the world’s most repressive regimes. What can be done about this was discussed at a recent conference organized by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Can consistency and integrity be restored to the Human Rights Commission?

The United States is an ambivalent member. It temporarily lost its seat in 2002 but has since regained it. Among its antagonists were authoritarian nations like Cuba and China. Lorne Craner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, says the Bush Administration debated whether the United States should return to the commission.

“And there were some who said the thing had descended so far that it was not worth re-joining,” he says. “There were others who noted that it was really the only multilateral body charged with advancing human rights, and as such it was a useful mechanism for us to be engaged in.”

Lorne Craner says the commission’s decline is directly related to the current make up of its membership. According to Mr. Craner, 17 of its 53 member states are led by undemocratic regimes that indeed do not respect human rights or the rule of law. “If you trace the descent of the commission to its present sad state,” he says, “it begins when more and more China, Cuba, Iran-type countries start getting on the commission. I’m not among those who think that the commission ought to be composed purely of pure democracies. I think there’s a place for a country like China, but I don’t think it’s a place for about 40% of the membership and right now those kind of countries occupy about 40% of the seats.”

As the United Nations has expanded over the years to include former colonies and newly independent countries, the general membership has changed and with it membership on the Human Rights Commission. Alison Kelly, political counselor at the Embassy of Ireland in Washington, says the organization’s mission has also shifted over the years.

“Perhaps it’s useful to remember that much like the real world, the commission has evolved significantly over the six decades since its creation,” she says. “As originally conceived, it essentially fulfilled an academic function of discussing human rights in abstract legal terms and evolving new, universal standards, starting with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.”

However, in recent years the organization has expanded its mission by issuing country reports, critiques of human rights abuses in specific nations. The commission also has created Special Rapporteurs, top-level officials who report on certain topics of concern; for example, torture. Alison Kelly says both of these functions have drawn criticism from newer members, especially from the developing world.

“In broad terms, the developing world tends to see itself as being lectured and patronized by the developed world,” she says. “There is a perception of the Western countries taking on the role of global moral policeman and imposing their perspectives, their values, their standards on developing countries whose history, traditions, standards and material circumstances are radically different. For their part the Western countries reject such a characterization. They emphasize that the standards they are applying and the values they are projecting are universal ones, accepted as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1993 Vienna Declaration.”

Alison Kelly says Ireland, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, recognizes that this North-South divide has the potential to de-rail the Commission’s work. She says the European Union is working to bridge this gap.

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, an American-based human rights group, says it is crucial that the democratic and free nations of the world unite and work together on the Human Rights Commission.

“Naming and shaming human rights violators is the foundation of human rights work,” he says, “whether you’re an NGO or a government. And anyone who has spoken to dissidents in any part of the world who struggle and campaign for democracy and human rights knows that they believe this is profoundly valuable to them. It’s so important for folks like that to know that they are not being forgotten, that they are being listened to, and that the world is on their side. And it matters to governments as well.”

Tom Malinowski says efforts by countries like Libya and Sudan to join the commission prove his point. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights matters to the bad guys, he says. So it ought to matter to the West. If the Western democracies stop caring about the Commission’s work, then the bad guys win. When the democracies of the world put aside their differences and work together, the commission is able to fulfill its mandate and shine the UN spotlight on human rights violators.

“Despite the membership, despite its inherent weaknesses, the Commission has managed to speak out on East Timor, on Serbia, Sudan and Turkmenistan,” he says. “For two years running in the late 1990’s, it condemned Russian human rights violations in Chechnya. It issued the first international statement of concern about human rights in North Korea.”

Mr. Malinowski says adroit diplomacy is needed to convince the democracies to work together. After all, if undemocratic regimes control 40% of the seats on the commission, that means the majority are controlled by democracies. “And so I think the real problem, the biggest problem is the inability of that 60% to work together well,” he says. “I mean the Europeans, although they’ve sponsored some country resolutions on tough cases like China, have tended to stay on the sidelines. Some European countries have been increasingly blasé – the use of the French word is not coincidental – about the whole idea of naming and shaming individual countries at the commission. There’s the view that some countries like to take the contracts while the United States takes the heat.”

But that isn’t to say the Europeans are only to blame. According to Tom Malinowski, the United States deserves some criticism for what’s gone wrong. The Americans’ unilateral pursuit of the war on terror has alienated European allies. So has U.S. hostility toward the International Criminal Court. The Bush Administration has refused to sign on to the Court, which has been ratified by all other Western democracies, and has even threatened sanctions against countries that don’t grant American soldiers immunity from prosecution.

Despite some major differences between the United States and its Western allies, Tom Malinowski notes they share more in common regarding human rights than, say, the United States and Zimbabwe. A failure of the democracies to unite means that human rights violators win, he says, and nobody wants that.