Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

The Elections to the "new" UN Human Rights Council

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Bush administration had every reason to decide not to run for a seat on the new UN Human Rights Council. The election is fast becoming a nightmare and there was every reason not to lend credibility to the charade.

There is not a single substantive criterion, such as actually respecting human rights, required for membership on the Council. In the words of a UN document released April 4th: "the membership of the Council shall be open to all Member States of the United Nations."

The document also makes painfully clear who will own the UN's human rights agenda:

The membership shall be based on equitable geographical distribution and seats shall be distributed among the regional groups as follows:
African Group 13
Asian Group 13
Eastern European Group 6
Latin American and Caribbean Group 8
Western European and Others Group (WEOG) 7
Total 47

In other words, the central human rights body of the UN will include countries which have no interest in human rights protection, and the regions of the world with the fewest democracies will hold 55% of the seats or the balance of power.

As for the candidates, they already include Algeria, China, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Throughout the UN apparatus there is a frenzied campaign to portray literally anything as a success. One hears: Sudan and Zimbabwe (former Commission members) have not decided to run - Iran may not be elected - and of course, the perennial favorite, "it's Ambassador John Bolton's fault."

So let us consider a few of the candidates' credentials for the UN's central human rights body. While Iran is best known for recently advocating the annihilation of 5 million Jews living in Israel, the State Department 2005 annual human rights report reminds us of the Iranian legal system. In 2005 it involved sentences of death by stoning of women for adultery, the surgical removal of eyes, and the amputation of feet.

How about Algeria? The State Department 2005 Annual Report on Religious Freedom informs us: "The law prohibits public assembly for purposes of practicing a faith other than Islam. The Government requires organized religions to submit and obtain official recognition prior to conducting any religious activities. The number of "house churches," where members meet secretly in the homes of fellow members for fear of exposure or because they cannot finance the construction of a church, has increased. Since 1994, the size of the Jewish community has diminished to virtual nonexistence due to fears of terrorist violence, and the synagogue in Algiers has been closed. Due to safety concerns and potential legal and social problems, Muslim converts practice their new faith clandestinely."

And by the way, Algeria continues to deny requests for visits from the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the UN Special Rapporteur (investigator) on Torture, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Executions.

Saudi Arabia? A million female migrant workers living in conditions of virtual slavery. And of course women can't vote, drive, or dress themselves in clothing of their own choice.

In what can only be considered a laughable twist, countries standing for election can voluntarily make a public pledge to protect human rights eventually. The UN, for reasons which became abundantly clear as soon as the Algerians and the Cubans made their pledges, has decided against translation and will only make them available in their original language. So far, 22 states of the 53 declared candidates have made pledges to be good little countries in the future. And only one is from either the African or Asian region, the states that hold the 55% Council majority.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist issued a press release April 6th applauding the President's "principled stand" which will help "deny the Council unwarranted legitimacy." But he went further, "My hope is that President Bush will consider establishing a council of democracies outside of the U.N. system that could meet regularly to truly monitor, examine and expose human rights abuses around the globe."

The time has come to do just that.