A while back, we had a debate here on the wisdom of supporting the watered-down proposal for a new UN Human Rights Council to replace the ineffectual Human Rights Commission. At the time, I argued that the voting rules for council members (which subdivided council membership among regional blocs and required an absolute rather than two-thirds majority) likely meant that the new council would differ little from its predecessor. Anne-Marie and others countered that the rules were an improvement and insisted, along with much of the human rights community, that we should not let the best be the enemy of the good.
Yesterday, we got the first real indication of who had the better of this argument, when the General Assembly elected the 47 members that are to sit on the Council. There is some good news — Iran and Venezuela failed in their bid to become members, and such notorious human rights abusers as Sudan, Libya, and Zimbabwe decided not to run for fear of being defeated. But there’s plenty of bad news as well, raising real questions about whether the new council will advance human rights or, like the commission, become a vehicle for covering them up.
Among those who gained membership are such stand-up countries as: China (a country that continues to persecute and execute large numbers of people who have the temerity to disagree with its political leadership), Russia (which has engaged in a brutal war in Chechnya and turned back the clock of liberalization across the board), Saudi Arabia (which bars non-Muslim expressions of faith and treats women as fourth class citizens), Cuba (which has been run by the same dictator for more than 45 years), and Pakistan (which is ruled by a general who proclaims a democratic mandate even while having gained office in a coup that ousted an elected government and where human rights abuses of all kinds, especially against women, are legendary). None of this bodes terribly well for the council — or for the protection and promotion of human rights. As the German government’s human rights envoy told the Financial Times, “the so-called ‘human-rights friendly’ countries are clearly in a minority on the council” because the African and Asian regional blocs have a majority of seats on the council.
The proof, of course, will be in the actual operation of the council. It may well be that the new requirement that the human rights activities of all UN members, starting with those elected to the council, be carefully examined provides an opportunity to prove this skeptic wrong. But first indications are hardly encouraging.
Posted at TPMCafe on May 10, 2006 — 4:22 AM Eastern Time