August 22, 2002

August 22, 2002 | Commentary on Middle East

ed082202: Libyan Fox In The Human-Rights Henhouse

Hollywood loves using the "it takes a thief to catch a thief" plot in its movies. But even the most creative scriptwriter couldn't top the real-life plot twist the U.N. Commission on Human Rights will have concocted when Libya becomes its chairman.

That's right -- Libya. One of the world's worst abusers of human rights will head what is supposed to be the world's most prestigious international forum for promoting those rights.

How did this happen? Chairmanship of the 53-member Commission rotates between geographic regions every year. The chairmanship for the term beginning in March 2003 belongs to Africa, whose nations are set to nominate Libya.

Ruled by the notorious dictator Muammar Qadhafi, Libya has long supported international terrorism. The U.S. State Department lists it as a state sponsor of terrorism. For years, it harbored the two individuals responsible for bombing Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and it still refuses to accept responsibility or pay compensation. Worse, says Under Secretary of State John Bolton, Libya is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Its human-rights record is awful. According to the State Department's 2001 "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," the Libyan government: (1) relies on its courts to suppress domestic opposition; (2) uses torture to interrogate and punish prisoners; (3) arrests and detains its citizens arbitrarily and often holds prisoners incommunicado for years; and (4) refuses prisoners the right to a fair public trial. In addition, the report says, Libya "restricts freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and religion."

As if all this wasn't enough, Libya also stands accused of trafficking in human slavery. This is the country other members of the U.N. Commission believe can best serve as spokesman for their efforts to promote human rights?

But for certain U.N. member nations, three things compensate for Libya's painfully deficient human-rights record. The first is that it's located in the correct geographic region. The second is the opportunity it gives them to thump democratic nations (particularly the United States) that often criticize developing countries for their human-rights records. The third is the determination of some nations to undermine the goals of the Commission on Human Rights and conceal their abuses.

What countries could see value in undermining human rights? Commission members such as China, Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe spring to mind. No doubt Libya can count on their eager support in quashing investigations into true human-rights abuses, instead focusing the Commission's resources on issues like the death penalty in the United States -- a cause sure to elicit support from human-rights groups while leaving the far worse records of repressive governments carefully cloaked.

These countries have become quite effective at pursuing this goal in recent years. For instance, China has used its membership on the Commission to defeat resolutions criticizing its human-rights record, and Cuba used its influence to weaken criticism of its record. Resolutions condemning Iran and Zimbabwe also failed to elicit enough support to pass this past year, according to Human Rights Watch.

This is the same Commission, incidentally, that refused to re-elect the United States in 2001 in a fit of spite over President Bush's opposition to such cherished U.N. icons as the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. At the same time the Commission kicked out the United States, it agreed to accept a new member: Sudan, a nation whose government has spent the last few years bombing civilians, tolerating slavery and supporting international terrorism.

After substantial lobbying, U.S. diplomats at the United Nations succeeded in getting America back on the Commission -- just in time, it seems, to enjoy the benefits of Libyan leadership. No doubt the new chairman and Libya's allies will spend much of their time making it difficult for the United States to advance the cause of human rights.

Image is everything to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The body has no real authority other than its moral stature in naming and shaming governments that violate human rights and abuse their citizens. The past unwillingness of the Commission to name and shame members for human-rights abuses, while doggedly carping at free democratic nations for their relatively minor offenses, has eroded its credibility. Naming Libya its chair sweeps away the Commission's last remnants of respectability and lends support to the belief that the United Nations is impeding human rights rather than enforcing them.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

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