UN Watch Briefing
News and Analysis from UN Watch in Geneva Vol. 188 | March 31, 2009
U.S. Return to U.N. Council Justified If Obama Fights Orwellian Agenda
By Hillel Neuer
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that Washington will seek membershp in the U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing the Bush Administration’s decision to steer clear of the deeply troubled body, created in 2006 ostensibly to reform its discredited predecessor.
Elections for rotating membership on the 47-nation council will take place at the General Assembly in May, with all 192 U.N. member states casting a ballot. The U.S. under the popular President Obama is virtually assured of election to the one of only 7 seats reserved for Western states. African and Asian states exercise a controlling majority with 26 seats.
Pathologically obsessed with scapegoating Israel — in more than 80 percent of all country resolutions (26 out of 33) — the council’s sessions routinely legitimize perpetrators, while turning a blind eye to millions of human rights victims around the world.
Whether we like it or not, however, the council is a permanent forum whose resolutions, translated into every language, exercise global influence on hearts and minds. As the successor to the Commission on Human Rights, it has noble origins: the commission was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt with the purpose of defending human dignity, but in later years found itself increasingly hijacked by the new U.N. majorities.
This stands in contrast to the fleeting Durban II conference, a one-week exercise that should be avoided, and whose original purpose — like Durban I and the proto-Durbans before it — was precisely to attack the West, Israel, and free speech; and was never, as the U.N. spin-machine would have us believe, “to provide concrete measures that will help millions.”
That’s why U.N. enthusiast Jimmy Carter himself was the first U.S. president to withdraw from such an event, back in 1978, a bit of history many would prefer not to recall. It was the U.N.’s first “World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination,” also held in Geneva, which Carter skipped because the definition of racism had been “perverted for political ends.” President Ronald Reagan likewise avoided the second Geneva gathering in 1983, and President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell famously pulled out from the third, and worst one, at Durban in 2001. Durban-fests have their own particular and pernicious provenance, and American governments have always been right to stay away.
The Human Rights Council, despite its pathologies, has a different history, weight and impact. Its mixed baggage still includes many bedrock principles embedded in positive institutions built up over time, which affirm and protect universal liberties like free speech and freedom of religion, and which need to be protected. With its proceedings now webcast, and with meetings held year-round instead of once a year, it’s a forum that grabs the world’s attention.
UN Watch therefore welcomes the U.S. decision to join the council, but only if it’s to vigorously push back against the world’s worst abusers, whose Orwellian agenda, in only three years, has begun to do away with every principle and institution of independent scrutiny, dismantling the post-war edifice of international human rights law piece by piece.
Repressive regimes now have the council in a stranglehold, eroding free speech protections in the name of Islamic sensitivities, and steadily eliminating country investigations in places like Belarus, Congo, Cuba, Liberia and Sudan. The few remaining ones, including on Sudan, are on the chopping block. (The investigation of Israel, however, which examines only Israeli actions and presumes guilt in advance, is exempt from review; fittingly, it’s headed by Richard Falk, whose fruitcake writings include the repeated suggestion that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government.)
Make no mistake: given the fixed regional seating, the U.S. will only replace the principled vote of outgoing Canada — a courageous government that last week voted alone several times to oppose anti-Israel resolutions — and not that of a Saudi Arabia or Cuba. No immediate victory is in sight, then.
Still, we may see some turning of the tide. Leading council hardliners like Egypt and Pakistan may back off somewhat with their chief funder sitting at the table. And the automatic majority for the anti-freedom and anti-Israel agenda could moderately diminish.
With high-level advocacy by Washington, some wavering states could lean toward principle instead of politics. (Mexico and other Latin American countries last week refused to join the West in opposing an Islamic resolution that encouraged censorship, and merely abstained.)
Ironically, U.S. “engagement” in this case will necessarily lead America into more confrontation, especially vis-a-vis such major violators and council spoilers like Egypt, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Cuba.
Unlike the Security Council and the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council has neither the power of the sword nor the power of the purse. At its best, it has only the power of shame: to shine a spotlight on the crimes of the worst abusers.
This, tragically, it has failed to do. But it is precisely what American public opinion will demand of the U.S. to do — to introduce resolutions condemning serial violators like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and China, even if they are bound to fail.
The Europeans, by contrast, choose “consensus” as often as possible, which means granting a veto to the worst of the worst. For too many E.U. diplomats at the council, their real objective is to achieve the impression that the council is working, even when the opposite is true.
Since almost every resolution worth its salt will be automatically defeated by the repressive majority, the E.U. never introduced a single text for victims of major abusers like China, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Syria, Russia, Cuba, and so forth. That would only lead to a headline that the council failed in something — and that headline, above all, must be avoided.
Instead, the best we got on countries like Sudan were occasional, milquetoast resolutions, of the kind that praised the Al-Bashir regime for its “cooperation,” all adopted by consensus — we all are getting along fine, you see — so that the good citizens of London, Paris and Berlin could rest assured that “the council works,” and think their diplomats to be taking part in a noble body.
By contrast, Americans — Democrat or Republican — cannot stomach compromises that look like appeasement. Consensus as a virtue is big in Brussels, but it doesn’t play in Peoria. U.S. membership, therefore, will necessarily affect the culture among the Western group, strengthening some of the more principled E.U. states on the council, like the Netherlands.
To be sure, the U.S. must justify its council engagement by showing change in the Geneva atmosphere. This should start with the democracies. The U.S. must demand that the European Union withdraw its groundless opposition to Israel joining the council’s Western group — which the E.U. already allows in the New York-based U.N. bodies — thus putting an end to the injustice whereby Israel is the only country barred from joining any of the council’s five regional groups.
That small gesture would send an important signal that change is possible, and on an issue that more than any other has discredited the council.
For more on the latest session of the UN Human Rights Council, click here.
For general statistics on the UN Human Rights Council, see below.
The State of Human Rights at the United Nations
Scorecard and Report on the UN Human Rights Council
Presented at the United Nations, December 10, 2008
Six decades ago, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, the magna carta for mankind. The historic proclamation was
created by a drafting committee that included Eleanor Roosevelt, founding chair of the UN
Human Rights Commission, Rene Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P.C. Chang
of China, and John Humphrey of Canada, and enshrined core principles common to all
humanity. The 60th anniversary of the Declaration is a time to celebrate and reaffirm these
For proponents of human rights worldwide, however, the celebration of this historic text is
marred by the state of crisis that plagues the current UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
Created in 2006 to replace the Commission, which became discredited for being politicized
and acting arbitrarily, the HRC was supposed to mark a new beginning. Regrettably, with
few exceptions, the opposite has happened. The council is dominated today by an alliance of
repressive regimes, including China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, that has acted systematically to
undermine and erode core principles and effective mechanisms created by the generation of
Eleanor Roosevelt and those that followed.
For example, the Council this year overturned protection of freedom of expression by a
revised mandate, sponsored by Islamic states with Cuban support, that now polices “the
abuse” of this freedom. The Council eliminated human rights monitors in Belarus, Cuba,
Liberia, Congo (DRC), and Darfur. The expert on Sudan was renewed only for six months,
an anomalous term at the Council, and is slated for possible elimination at the March 2009
session. The Council appointed one expert who is the co-founder of the “Moammar
Qaddafi Human Rights Prize” (Jean Ziegler), and another who believes that the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, were an inside job (Richard Falk). Although a new
mechanism to review all states (Universal Periodic Review, or UPR) has potential, thus far it
has been largely a toothless exercise.
Sixty years after the founding vision of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rene Cassin, the United
Nations human rights system as a whole find itself in a state of crisis.
This UN Watch report includes the following key findings:
• Only 13 of 47 HRC Members Voted Positively: Out of 47 HRC member states,
only a minority of 13 had positive voting records in our study of actions taken on 32
key resolutions. In order of highest ranking, these were Canada, France, Germany,
Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Bosnia,
Ukraine, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. See scorecard and full table of resolutions.
• Majority 34 of 47 HRC Members Voted Negatively: A majority of 34 out of the
47 HRC member states had negative voting records—casting ballots against
independent human rights mechanisms or basic principles such as free speech—or
supported counter-productive resolutions sponsored by repressive regimes. From
bad to worse, these were: Guatemala, Uruguay, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia,
Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana, India, Madagascar, Philippines, Angola, Jordan,
Mauritius, Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Mali,
Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Senegal, South Africa, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia,
Malaysia, Nicaragua, Russia, Sri Lanka and China. See scorecard and full table of
• HRC Ignored Worst Abusers: In 2007-2008, the council failed to address the
world’s worst human rights violations. Of the 20 worst violators on Freedom
House’s annual survey, the council censured only Myanmar and North Korea.
While it did adopt resolutions on Sudan, these were non-condemnatory, weak, and
ineffective, some even praising Sudan for its “cooperation.” Somalia’s violations
were addressed as a matter of mere “technical consideration.” Even worse, the
council failed to adopt any resolution, special session or investigative mandate for:
Belarus, China, Cuba, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Libya,
Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. See table, “How HRC Addressed Worst Abusers.”
• The Spoilers Have It: While almost half of the Council’s 47 members are free
democracies (49%), only a minority of these countries—about a dozen—have
consistently voted in defense of the values and principles that the Council is
supposed to promote. Instead, the body has been dominated by an increasingly
brazen alliance of repressive regimes seeking not only to spoil needed reforms but to
undermine the few meaningful mechanisms of UN human rights protection that
already exist. Their goal is impunity for systematic abuses. Unfortunately, as this
report shows, too many democracies have been going along with the spoilers, out of
loyalty to regional groups and other political alliances.
• Total HRC Condemnations to Date: From its inception in June 2006 to the
present, the HRC has condemned North Korea in 1 resolution, Myanmar in 4, and
Israel in 20 resolutions. While the council did address Sudan several times, these
were not condemnations but weak and ineffective resolutions, some of which
actually praised Sudan for its “cooperation.” Despite the pleas of former UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan as well as current UN chief Ban Ki-moon, the HRC’s
focus has actually become even more narrow than was the case under the former
Commission on Human Rights.
• Current Composition of the 2008-2009 Council:
o 24 out of 47 current UNHRC members (51%) fall short of basic democracy
standards, with ratings of either Partly Free or Not Free.
o 32 out of 47 UNHRC (68%) members have a negative voting record on UN
resolutions that promote human rights.
o 35 out of the current 47 UNHRC members (74%) have voted to restrict the
independence of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. See table
analyzing current HRC members.
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