March 29, 2007

March 29, 2007 | Commentary on

Free Speech? Not at the U.N. Human Rights Council

The closer one observes the United Nations, the more one notices how disconnected it is from reality -- especially when debating human rights. Its bias and politicization was on full display recently at the 4th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which saw continued attacks on Israel and intolerance toward criticism.

In its first year, the HRC has proven just as feckless in confronting human-rights abuses and as prone to politically motivated attacks as its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. And the Commission's record was so bad, even former Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted that it "cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole" and called for its replacement.

In a disheartening repeat of one of the old Commission's worst failings, the HRC held its first "special session" last summer on Israel, at which it adopted a one-sided resolution condemning that nation and ignoring the provocations of Palestinian-armed groups.

This became a pattern: In its first three sessions, the Council adopted 10 resolutions addressing human-rights concerns in specific countries -- eight of which harshly condemned Israel. The Council's first three "special sessions" on extraordinary human-rights issues also targeted Israel.

Ongoing repression in Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe, meanwhile, is ignored. Only under immense pressure from the media, human-rights groups and Western governments did the HRC address the world's most urgent human-rights crisis, the genocide in Darfur. Even then, a number of member states opposed a "special session" on Sudan and successfully watered down two resolutions regarding the situation in Darfur.

The 4th session of the Human Rights Council, currently being held in Geneva, is following this profoundly disappointing record. The HRC's expert on human rights in the Palestinian territories accused Israel of conducting an apartheid policy against the Palestinians and accusing them of extensive human-rights crimes. Three new resolutions condemning Israel are expected.

No other state receives such scrutiny. Indeed, it was a struggle for states concerned about Darfur to even get the HRC to hear a presentation by the Council's own "High-Level Mission" established last December to assess the situation in Darfur. Don't hold your breath waiting for the Council to act on this report or condemn Sudan for refusing to cooperate with the High-Level Mission.

Such hypocrisy, though, is to be expected from a Council that includes Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and other states with questionable commitment to human rights among its members. However, one would hope that a U.N. body dedicated to promoting human rights would cleave more closely to those ideals during its deliberations. Sadly, this is not the case.

In reaction to the Council's blatant bias against Israel, Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based non-governmental organization United Nations Watch expressed dismay and challenged the Council to live up to the ideals of those who created the original Commission on Human Rights in 1946 and made promotion of human rights a central purpose of the U.N.:

"Faced with compelling reports from around the world of torture, persecution, and violence against women, what has the Council pronounced, and what has it decided? Nothing. Its response has been silence. Its response has been indifference. Its response has been criminal.

One might say, in Harry Truman's words, that this has become a Do-Nothing, Good-for-Nothing Council.

But that would be inaccurate. This Council has, after all, done something.

It has enacted one resolution after another condemning one single state: Israel."

Neuer criticized the hypocrisy of the Council, noting that "the racist murderers and rapists of Darfur women tell us they care about the rights of Palestinian women; the occupiers of Tibet care about the occupied; and the butchers of Muslims in Chechnya care about Muslims. But do these self-proclaimed defenders truly care about Palestinian rights?" Judging by the Council's refusal to condemn Palestinian atrocities, the answer as "no."

One would expect many members of the Council to disagree or object to Neuer's statement. However, the Council President went further. He chastised Neuer. In an unprecedented move, he stated that he would not thank Neuer for his comments -- a customary measure that follows every statement made before the HRC, regardless of merit. He further threatened to strike Neuer's comments from the record.

Considering the hostile, insulting and dishonest statements made earlier by states like Burma, North Korea and Sudan, it's clear that free speech is a privilege denied human-rights groups that confront the Council over its poor record -- but strongly protected for regimes that abuse human rights. So much for dispelling the "shadow" Kofi Annan rightly decried.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation ( He was an observer at the 4th Session of the Human Rights Council.

About the Author

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