January 22, 2003 | Commentary on International Organizations

An atrocious act in Geneva

With everybody's eyes focused on Iraq, it has pretty much escaped notice that the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva has made another really egregious misstep. On Monday, the 53-member commission chose Libya - yes, Muammar Qadhafi's Libya - as the chairman of the Human Rights Commission for 2003. This has to be the biggest joke since, well, last year, when Sudan was made a member of the commission while the United States was voted out. A fine moment for human rights it was indeed, and so is this.

At New Year 2003, the United States made it back onto the commission, just in time to raise objections to the developments in the chairmanship about to take place. Before long, the U.S. government was committing an act of unheard-of tactlessness, according to U.N. standards at least; it objected officially to the choice of Libya for the chairmanship and demanded a secret ballot. It is the first time this has happened since 1947, when the commission was founded.

Unfortunately, the ballot resulted in a 33-vote majority for Libya with three countries voting no and 17 abstaining. Given that the chairmanship is normally chosen by acclamation, the U.S. objection is bound to cause a lot of ruffled protocol feathers. We can live with hurt feelings, however. Taking a stand on principle in defense of human rights is certainly worth it.

There is no doubt that this courageous move could expose the Bush administration to criticism at the United Nations at a time when cooperation on Iraq and arms inspections within the U.N. Security Council is of great importance. Don't be surprised if we hear more complaints about "American unilateralism."

But how could the choice possibly fall on Libya in the first place, a nasty dictatorship and as unlikely a human-rights champion as ever there was? The fact is that chairmanship of the commission is not settled on the merit of the case, but is chosen on a rotating basis among the world's five regions.

This summer in Durban, the African Group amazingly voted to make Libya its candidate. In this, Libya may have been rewarded for bankrolling various African causes with its oil wealth. Now, no one objects to Africa taking its due turn at the helm, but couldn't the Africans have come up with a more suitable candidate?

The chairmanship has now devolved paradoxically enough to a country that is under U.N. sanctions for international terrorism. Libya has not accepted responsibility or paid reparations for the terrorist explosion in 1988 of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, by two Libyan nationals with ties to the government of Muammar Qadhafi. It will make complete a travesty of the commission's work.

"Libya's record as an abuser of human rights is well-known," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Jan. 13. "It is also a country under U.N. sanctions because it has yet to fulfill the conditions related to the bombing of Pan Am 103. We cannot reward such terrible conduct with a leadership position, in this case in the foremost human rights body."

Only Canada was outspoken in joining the objections raised by the United States. "We attach the highest of importance to the commission on human rights. We believe its integrity is extremely important," Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham said last week. "We do not believe that Libya as chair at this time would be appropriate in these circumstance." That is a massive understatement.

The group to which both Canada and the United States belong is known as the WEOG, Western Europe and Others Group. Western Europe, however, was not too keen to register opposition. No one wanted to affront the Africans by opposing Libya, and no one wanted to lose his own place in line for the chairmanship, which rotates in such a neat and orderly fashion. Why rock the boat? Rather than vote no, European countries decided to abstain.

Particularly at a time when the United Nations, and the larger U.N. system, ought to be concerned about their credibility and ability to handle serious international issues, the Commission on Human Rights could hardly have made a worse choice than Libya. (Iraq might be one.)

It would seem reasonable, even imperative, for the commission only to include countries with a solid and proven track record as defenders of human rights. How to achieve that ought to be the Bush administrations next order of business.

Helle Dale is deputy director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in the Washington Times