Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

The New Human Rights Abusers Elected to UN Rights Body

Saturday, May 19, 2007

On Thursday, the United Nations elected new members to its lead human-rights protection body, the Human Rights Council. The so-called "reformed" agency (which replaced the thoroughly discredited "Commission on Human Rights") will now include three new states with a special penchant for abusing human rights: Angola, Egypt, and Qatar. They join the likes of current members Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia.

In order to be elected to this U.N. club, these states had the onerous task of pledging to take human rights seriously. Angola pledged "to continue...mainstreaming human rights throughout the society [and]...promoting the rule of law, access to justice and reconciliation..." What Angola neglected to mention were some features of current conditions in the country, as recited in the recent State Department Human Rights report: "...the abridgement of citizens' right to elect officials at all levels; unlawful killings by police, military, and private security forces; torture, beatings...corruption and impunity..." etc.

Egypt pledged to "preserve the freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary [and]...fulfil...political, social and economic reform, anchored in the promotion and protection of human rights..." Mysteriously omitted from the Egyptian promise were, in the words of the State Department report: "...limitations on the right of citizens to change their government; a state of emergency, in place almost continuously since 1967; torture and abuse of prisoners and detainees;...arbitrary arrest and detention...restrictions on civil liberties -- freedoms of speech and press...female genital mutilation," etc, etc.

Qatar's grandiose pledge read: "The State of Qatar pays great and increasing attention to the goal of promoting and protecting human rights," and it pointed to its constitution, which "guarantees" "equality before the law, the prohibition against discrimination, personal freedom," and a whole host of other rights. Among the other guarantees in Qatar, according to the State Department report: "citizens lack...the right to change their government peacefully...judicially sanctioned corporal punishments...freedoms of speech (including the use of the Internet), press, assembly, and association continued to be restricted...Discrimination against women..." And for good measure, according to the 2004 Criminal Code, "Individuals caught proselytizing on behalf of any religion other than Islam" are subject to "imprisonment of up to ten years."

None of this made the slightest difference to the General Assembly members who elected the U.N.'s human rights watchdogs - 172 of the 192 members of the General Assembly voted for Angola, 168 for Egypt, and 170 for Qatar.

A week ago, another U.N. election stirred controversy when Zimbabwe was elected to chair the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development. The government of Robert Mugabe vies for the title of the worst example of unsustainable development in modern times, having raped and pillaged the vast human and natural resources of the country for decades.

However appalling these electoral results may be, it would be a serious mistake to take them out of context. The U.N. presents a broad array of elected officials governing its various agencies and bodies. Here, then, are the broader context and some of the illustrious members of U.N. institutions:

  • U.N. Disarmament Commission Vice-Chairman : Iran, Rapporteur ; Syria
  • Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
  • U.N. Programme of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
  • Commission on Social Development: North Korea
  • Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
  • Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
  • Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
  • U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) Board: Bhutan, China
  • U.N. Development Programme Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
  • World Food Programme Executive Board: Zimbabwe, Sudan
  • International Labour Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
  • U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
  • U.N. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT): Zimbabwe
  • Working Groups of the Human Rights Council on Arbitrary Detention and Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances: both groups have a member from Iran
  • General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Bhutan, Libya, Zimbabwe
  • Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs of the General Assembly, Vice-Chairman: Belarus

The big picture? Not only do the human-rights abusers sit on the human-rights protection agency, the nuclear proliferators sit on the disarmament commission; the deniers of freedom of information sit on the public information committee; the international law violators sit on the appreciation of international law committee; the enemies of social development sit on the social development commission; the misogynists sit on the women's rights body; the savage sit on the development commission; the criminals sit on the crime prevention commission; the forced abortionists sit on the children's rights fund; the undemocratic are members of the good governance and sustainable development programme; the food crisis manufacturers are members of the effective food aid programme; the anti-free association experts sit on the labor-protection governing body; the refugee creators sit on the refugee protection executive committee; the agents of homelessness are members of the human settlements protection programme; the masters at arbitrary detention and involuntary disappearance sit on detention and disappearance prevention groups; those who systematically ignore the U.N. Charter sit as leaders in the assembly charged with promoting its respect.

Undoubtedly, there will remain those perpetual optimists who will fancy these examples as isolated incidents and hence will judge that U.N. camaraderie is worth the gambit with American taxpayer dollars. While they dream on, the Organization of the Islamic Conference just does the math. After yesterday's Human Rights Council elections, they remain with a chokehold on the "reformed" human rights body by retaining a majority of each of the African and Asian regional groups, which in turn control the majority of the Council itself.

It isn't a pretty picture. And it gets uglier every time the U.N. members -- the majority of which are not full democracies -- go through the pretense of holding elections. They've got the pledging down all right. The resemblance to rights, freedoms, or real democracy, however, ends there.

This article was first published in National Review Online.