March 4, 2008 | WebMemo on International Organizations
It is rumored that Louise Arbour will not seek a second four-year term as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This is the very definition of "mixed blessing." Arbour has repeatedly demonstrated poor judgment and an alarming willingness to cater to the world's more repressive regimes, but there is no guarantee that her successor will be any better. Human rights abusers in the U.N. will surely work to ensure that the next High Commissioner is even less dedicated to human rights and more susceptible to pernicious influence. The U.S. should move quickly to identify strong candidates that would make the office an ally in the fight to advance political and civil rights.
Louise Arbour was nominated to be High Commissioner for Human Rights by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February 2004, and the U.N. General Assembly approved the nomination that same month. Arbour replaced Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.
There is no question that Arbour was qualified. She had served on the Supreme Court of Canada since 1999; had been Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda; and had published papers on human rights, civil liberties, and gender issues.
During her tenure as High Commissioner, Arbour oversaw a number of positive actions, such as criticizing the government of Zimbabwe for attacking and oppressing its political opposition. However, Arbour has also demonstrated a troubling willingness to provide cover for authoritarian regimes. The following examples are from the past year alone:
Arbour has also displayed a troubling lack of clear thinking on the primacy of rights, including on the following occasions:
These positions turn the concept of human rights on its head: Respect for religion cannot be imposed through constraints on free speech; measures to counter terrorist acts pale in comparison to genocide, religious repression, and totalitarianism; and ratifying a document expressing commitment to human rights lacks credibility when it calls for the elimination of Zionism and, by extension, the nation of Israel.
The rights to life, freedom of expression, and self-government are the very bedrock of a free society. Sadly, Louise Arbour's confusion on this matter is endemic in the United Nations.
Dragging Down Human Rights
Many repressive governments are using their membership in the U.N. to undermine and blunt the organization's ability to promote fundamental human rights. The key battleground for these efforts has been the U.N. Human Rights Council, which was created in 2006 as a replacement for the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
Arbour again demonstrated poor judgment when the new council was created. She declared that the new body represented the "dawn of a new era" in promoting human rights in the United Nations even though repressive regimes had gutted membership requirements and other standards that would have made the council more credible than its predecessor.
Predictably, the Human Rights Council has been a grave disappointment and has failed to address ongoing repression around the world. Numerous repressive governments were elected to the council, including Algeria, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. These countries have successfully eliminated scrutiny of human rights in Belarus, Cuba, Iran, and Uzbekistan; have made it harder to adopt country-specific resolutions against human rights abusers like Burma and Sudan; have singled out Israel as the only country subject to a permanent council mandate; and have adopted a restrictive "code of conduct" to impede the autonomy of the council's independent experts.
Another issue looming on the horizon is the 2009 Durban Review Conference, also known as Durban II. This conference is the follow up to the disastrous 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which was so counterproductive that Israel and the U.S. walked out. Arbour was named as Secretary-General of Durban II in February, and her successor will have an important leadership role in its agenda and proceedings. Many countries will seek to make Durban II a repeat of 2001. The High Commissioner will play an important role in impeding or facilitating their efforts.
Despite her many misjudgments, Arbour has overseen some positive actions by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Algeria, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and other repressive states are not interested in having an independent voice for fundamental human rights in the Office of High Commissioner looking into and commenting on situations that they would prefer be ignored. As a result, these countries and their allies on the Human Rights Council have sought to increase the council's influence over the office and its agenda.
These states have aggressively pressured the High Commissioner in recent months, according to Hillel Neuer of UN Watch:
At a meeting last month between government representatives and Ms. Arbour, Western diplomats were taken aback by the unrestrained demands of non-democratic governments to undermine the independence of the High Commissioner's office.
Ms. Arbour's reported intention to depart only underscores the tightening climate of intimidation within the UN human rights system, part of an overall campaign by repressive regimes at the Human Rights Council to eliminate scrutiny of their abuses.
These repressive states will fight to make sure that Arbour's successor will be someone they can influence. Considering that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is part of the United Nations and that the High Commissioner is nominated by the Secretary-General and confirmed by the General Assembly, it is easy to see how repressive states can influence the selection of Arbour's successor.
Free democracies comprise a minority of the General Assembly, while key regional blocs and other groups like the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of the Islamic Conference remain strongly influenced by repressive regimes that are opposed to human rights. Unless strong action is taken, they are assured an easy victory.
The U.S. Must Act
To prevent repressive regimes from further co-opting U.N. human rights mechanisms, like-minded nations must rally behind a strong candidate dedicated to protecting and advancing fundamental human rights. Such a person should possess several key qualities:
It might be difficult to find the perfect candidate,
particularly in the politically charged U.N. arena, but the U.S.
should seek to promote several individuals that meet most of the
above criteria. Of particular importance is the proven ability to
recognize the primacy of civil and political rights.
Individuals that have experienced repression first hand and have spoken up against despotism, such as Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky, or Aung San Suu Kyi, should receive strong attention for the position of High Commissioner. These individuals are well-equipped to resist pressure and grasp the vital importance of civil and political freedoms.
Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
America World News, "Arbour Sees 'Unprecedented' Commitment from Cuba on Human Rights," Earth Times, February 8, 2008, at www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/184623,arbour-sees-unprecedented-commitment-from-cuba-on-human-rights.html.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speech at "The World Without Zionism" conference, Tehran, October 26, 2005, at www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/weekinreview/30iran.html, and "Ahmadinejad in Sudan: 'Zionists Are the True Manifestation of Satan,'" Haaretz, March 1, 2007, at www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/832229.html.
United Nations Office at Geneva, "High Commissioner for Human Rights Welcomes Ratification Bringing into Force Arab Charter on Human Rights," January 24, 2008, at www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B9C2E/(httpNewsByYear_en)/385A138D2DCAA53FC12573DA00563DEB.
Article 2 of the Charter states, "All forms of racism, Zionism and foreign occupation and domination constitute an impediment to human dignity and a major barrier to the exercise of the fundamental rights of peoples; all such practices must be condemned and efforts must be deployed for their elimination." See League of Arab States, "Revised Arab Charter on Human Rights," May 22, 2004, at www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/loas2005.html?msource=UNWDEC19001&tr=y&auid=3337655.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, "Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Entry into Force of the Arab Charter on Human Rights," United Nations press release, January 30, 2008, at www.unhchr.ch/huricane/huricane.nsf/view01/6C211162E43235FAC12573E00056E19D?opendocument&tr=y&auid=3358871.
UN Watch, "Dawn of a New Era? Assessment of the United Nations Human Rights Council and Its Year of Reform," May 7, 2007, at www.unwatch.org/atf/cf/%7b6deb65da-be5b-4cae-8056-8bf0bedf4d17%7d/dawn_of_a_new_era_hrc%20report_final.pdf.
Brett D. Schaefer, "U.N. Further Weakens Human Rights Council," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 1707, November 20, 2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/wm1707.cfm.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, "World Conference Against Racism," U.S. Department of State, September 3, 2001, at www.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/2001/4789.htm.
Steven Edwards, "Arbour Will Not Seek Second U.N. Human Rights Term," Canwest News Service, February 27, 2008, at www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=c9ec3f54-b7da-4196-9a61-7ceba673348f&k=1752.
Brett D. Schaefer, "Who Leads the United
Nations?" Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 1054, December 4,
2007, at www.heritage.org/Research/InternationalOrganizations/hl1054.cfm.