Special Report

Inhuman Rights at the UN

Condemning the same Libya it was about to commend.

By 3.2.11

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I suppose the United Nations General Assembly should be praised for suspending Libya from the UN Human Rights Council. Or should it?

After all, it was only last November that Libya underwent the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is the process by which all 192 member states of the UN are subject to a review of their human rights record every four years. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UPR "provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights." This process puts notorious human rights abusers like Libya on the same plane with the likes of Luxembourg. Indeed, as recently as the day before Libya's suspension, the Human Rights Council was scheduled to proceed with a vote on March 18 to praise Libya's human rights record based on the results of the UPR.

The fact that Libya had a seat on the Human Rights Council in the first place is an absurdity unto itself. But then again so is the very existence of the Council whose other esteemed members include the likes of China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. Frankly, the Human Rights Council has about as much right to sit in judgment of human rights as Charlie Sheen has to lecture American youth about sobriety.

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. In fact it was five years ago this month that the UN General Assembly established the Human Rights Council to succeed the UN Human Rights Commission. The Commission had been subject to heavy criticism for including the world's most notorious human rights abusers amongst its ranks and for its unhealthy obsession with Israel. Indeed, in 2003, Libya was elected to chair the Commission. The new Human Rights Council was supposed to do away with such absurdities. Then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the establishment of the Council as "historic" while then UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson of Sweden hailed the Council as "a significant improvement."

For its part, the Bush Administration had a far more skeptical view and opposed the establishment of the Human Rights Council. John Bolton, then U.S. Ambassador to the UN, said at the time, "We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor." Not surprisingly, Bolton's reservations have to come to fruition. The UN Human Rights Council includes the world's most notorious human rights abusers amongst its ranks and has an unhealthy obsession with Israel. I suppose it was a sign of progress that Libya did not chair the Human Rights Council but it still managed to get elected to the Council in 2010. While the Bush Administration wisely steered clear of the Human Rights Council, the Obama Administration legitimized the Kafkaesque body by winning a seat on the Council in 2009 and then last year agreed to submit itself to the UPR. Despite the Obama Administration's involvement with the Council, it has not been an improvement over its predecessor.

Now, of course, the UN could always change the name of its human rights body again. Maybe next time the General Assembly will establish the UN Human Rights Committee or perhaps they will opt to call it the UN Human Rights Congress. They can call it by whatever name they please. The problem isn't with the name. The problem is with the United Nations itself.

In the grand scheme of things, the UN can be best described as a democratic body many of whose members don't practice democracy at home. It is these countries in the African and Asian regional blocs which comprise 55% of the member states in the UN. Many of these states are part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). With a majority like this, is it any wonder Muammar Qaddafi's Libya could not only be elected the Human Rights Council but be praised by it for its human rights record? After all, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia are Libya's peers.

Yet let us not forget that Libya was elected to the Human Rights Council less than a year ago with the approval of 155 of the 192 member states of the UN.  Of course, the vote was done by secret ballot so we don't know precisely which member states voted for Libya. But we do know that Libya was voted in by enough of them that it would have received support from some European nations and perhaps even the United States.

As long as any Western nation is comfortable with choosing the likes of Libya to the Human Rights Council, then what do human rights really mean? Human rights obviously don't mean anything to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. But what do human rights mean to Western countries when they are prepared to elect authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to the Human Rights Council? Are these countries so steeped in moral equivalence and equivocation that they are afraid to pass judgment against authoritarian and totalitarian regimes? Well, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes sure aren't afraid to assail the United States and other Western countries. Should it come as any surprise to them that Libya could be praised for its human rights record on a body where other authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have a vote? Under the present circumstances and for the foreseeable future, I can only conclude that questions pertaining to human rights are best addressed outside the UN. The UN and human rights simply don't mix.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.