May 19, 2006 | Commentary on International Organizations

U.N. is still wrong on human rights

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls the new U.N. Human Rights Council "a great opportunity to make a fresh start." He's right. What a shame, then, that it appears the opportunity is going to waste.

Last year, appalled by the ineffectiveness of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (which human rights abusers had used to shield themselves from scrutiny or sanction), the United States and other nations interested in making the United Nations more effective in promoting human rights successfully led an effort to replace the discredited commission.

But when the new council was unveiled, it was clear that the worst violators of human rights among the U.N. member states had crippled the new body by blocking any meaningful criteria for membership, leaving it vulnerable to the same manipulation that plagued the old commission.

Only three nations - Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau - joined the United States in voting against the new council. Significantly, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Syria, Libya, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe voted in favor of it.

This doesn't mean we should give up.

"We remain committed to support the U.N.'s historic mission to promote and protect the basic human rights of all the world's citizens," noted the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton. "The real test will be the quality of membership that emerges on this council and whether it takes effective action to address serious human rights abuse cases like Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Burma."

Instead, the United States took a wait-and-see approach. It announced that it would not run for a seat on the new council this year but would give it an opportunity to prove itself by agreeing to fund it this year. Washington said it would consider running for a seat in the future if the Human Rights Council exceeds expectations and proves a more effective advocate for human rights than the defunct commission.

If early trends continue, Washington may be on the sidelines for a long time.

Candidates for seats on the council made a show of pledging their commitment to human rights - a pledge that, in many cases, flies in the face of their record. For instance:

  • China's government pledged, nonsensically, that "the National People's Congress has adopted nearly 300 laws and regulations related to the protection of civil and political rights, ensuring complete freedom of the Chinese people in movement, employment, access to information, religious belief and ways of life."
  • Cuba claims that "Cuban women and men have achieved significant progress in enjoinment of all their human rights." Excepting, presumably, the right to self-determination.
  • Pakistan declared, "Promotion of human dignity, fundamental freedoms and human rights, equal status and rights of the followers of all religions and prohibition of discrimination on account of religion, race, caste or creed, etc., are enshrined in ... the Constitution."
  • And Saudi Arabia claims it "pursues the policy of active cooperation with international organizations in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The May 9 council elections make it clear that the HRC is not fundamentally different from its failed predecessor. Only about half of the countries elected to the council are considered "free," according to the watchdog group Freedom House.

Despite their poor human rights records and the transparently disingenuous nature of their pledges, China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia all succeeded in gaining support from a majority of the General Assembly and were elected to seats on the council.

Indeed, about 20 percent of the 47 new members of the council are considered "not free," including noted human rights abusers Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Those numbers are a slight improvement over the former commission. But that these states were elected at all means they'll be in position to hamstring the new council just as they did the old commission.

The United States must carefully monitor the performance of the council and use its influence to ensure that the HRC cracks down on human rights abusers. Congress should do its part by reviewing the council's performance when it's time to renew funding for the United Nations. Congress also should demand that the State Department report on the council's performance and restrict funds if it fails to confront prominent human rights abusers.

Then, perhaps, the "fresh start" that Mr. Annan spoke of will come to fruition.

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

First appeared in BaltimoreSun.Com