By Bill Miller
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly recently approved a groundbreaking resolution that created the Human Rights Council to replace the somewhat discredited Commission on Human Rights.
By an overwhelming vote of 170 in favor of, 4 against (the US, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau), with 3 abstentions (Venezuela, Iran and Belarus), the green light was given to select the 47 members of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on May 9, and convene the new Council in Geneva on June 19.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had originally proposed a tougher version of the HRC (and President Bush would probably agree) that would have eliminated many of the shortcomings of the former Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Annan originally proposed that a 2/3 vote be required to secure a seat on the Council, which is the US’s position. It will now take an absolute majority of 96 member states in an up-or-down secret vote on each nominee for a country to be selected to the HRC.
An abstention counts as a nay. The General Assembly will not have to automatically accept a slate of candidates -- no matter how severely they violate the human rights of their peoples -- as offered by a regional bloc.
Several of the advantages of the new HRC is that it will meet year-round, thus being able to respond immediately to gross human rights atrocities; it will have a mechanism to recall a member that is involved in human rights violations; and it will stiffen the criteria for a country to become a member.
Realistically, during the give and take of legislative negotiations in the 191-member General Assembly, Annan’s original proposed Human Rights Council has been diluted somewhat, however, it is far superior to what currently exists.
Many of the more consistent UN-bashers, such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Heritage Foundation, attacked the HRC as being ineffective and no better than the CHR. Even some of the more respected mainstream media outlets, such as the New York Times, suggested that the vote be delayed and further discussions take place.
What these critics overlooked was that more discussions would have opened Pandora’s Box and made the Council even weaker since many of the major human rights violators -- concerned about too much intrusion into their sovereign affairs -- would have introduced more diluting amendments.
Although the often-criticized Commission on Human Rights (which is being replaced by the Human Rights Council) had many successes in its nearly 60-year tenure, it was viewed as an embarrassment to the UN because some of the worst human rights violators, such as Zimbabwe, Cuba and Sudan, wound up as members. This handful of violators was able to manipulate the commission’s parliamentary procedures, push bloc voting and gain control of key positions of leadership. Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland and highly-respected Former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, indicated that this manipulation overshadowed many of the Commission’s tangible accomplishments, such as using the Commissions’ Special Rapporteurs to expose human rights violations, promulgating the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, implementing the comprehensive body of international human rights law, and mobilizing international public pressure against many human rights violators.
Robinson (who was ousted as Human Rights Commissioner by the Bush Administration), along with former US President Jimmy Carter and many human rights organizations, strongly encouraged the creation of the new Human Rights Council.
US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said that the US stood on “principle” and voted against the new Council. Many of the UN member states probably perceived that statement to be partially true, but somewhat of a false Potemkin Village. When many countries peeked behind the façade, they noted several conflicting arguments that damaged the US’s credibility and its arguments (although the US made some excellent points that supported Annan’s original proposal). The US, even though it has fewer human rights violations than many of the UN member states, has slid from its previous moral high ground as a champion for human rights.
For example, several countries noted that:
-- The recent US Annual Report on Human Rights, which focuses attention on human rights violations around the world, mentioned nothing about gross US human rights violations at Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama and Guantanamo Bay, not to mention other secret detention centers used by the US Government.
The report criticized Egypt for its violations, but was silent about its US complicity in quietly taking potential enemy combatants (or possibly innocent bystanders) to Egypt and torturing them.
Even more disturbing recently is the growing number of reports filed against US military personnel in Iraq for summarily executing civilians. The Defense Department acknowledged that “most” of these incidents did not occur, yet they still have not adequately addressed the ones that did take place. Tragically, these allegations harken back to the anger and frustration of the Charlie Company soldiers who committed the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968, in Vietnam;
-- The Bush Administration has systematically worked to circumvent the Geneva Convention, and is illegally spying on some innocent Americans who have no ties to terrorists;
-- The duplicitous and mendacious manipulation of information to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq that has ultimately resulted in the deaths and maiming of potentially tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
Although Saddam was not involved in the 9-11 attacks, did not have an operative relationship with Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and did not possess WMDs, a recent leaked report indicates that the Bush Administration had decided to invade Iraq even if WMDs did not exist and if the UN Security Council failed to draft a resolution that sanctioned the invasion.
-- Ambassador John Bolton is widely viewed as a virulent UN basher who purportedly stresses the US wants to improve the UN. In the process of deliberating the new Human Rights Council, Bolton rarely participated in the discussions, was quite vague as to what the US wanted the Council to be and displayed his caustic, undiplomatic lack of interpersonal skills in conveying the US position. Apparently, there was great confusion among the US delegation as to the final product.
Jan Eliason, the President of the UN General Assembly, bent over backwards to accommodate the US and try to get them on board by delaying the vote for further negotiations, but to no avail. The US -- which now must play a key role if this Council is to succeed -- must stop dragging its feet, get actively involved in the discussions, and lend its support (both financial and technical) to guaranteeing its success. On a positive note, Ambassador Bolton indicated the US would be supportive.
The US, Kofi Annan, human rights supporters, and many others hoped for a stronger Council. Now is the time for realism to prevail. As Kofi Annan said, “The true test of the Council’s credibility will be the use the member states make of it…the Council can breathe new life into all our work for human rights.” Now is the time for the member states to fully support the Human Rights Council, or it will surely fail.
Bill Miller is past Chair of the United Nations Association of the USA’s Council of Chapter Presidents.