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The international community on December 10 marks International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Conventions. Unfortunately, there is more to lament than celebrate. Although numerous institutions and organizations were established to protect and advance these rights, the international community fails to live up to its moral commitments.
Throughout Africa, particularly in Sudan and the Congo, mass killings continue. Dictatorships in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and China continue to repress their citizens. Frequently, we have seen their leaders demonstrate open hostility towards democratic countries.
In all instances, relative to the gravity of the violation, the human rights organizations, international institutions, and the media barely bat an eyelash. Worse, many of these abusers have hijacked the very entities meant to hold them accountable. China and Libya sit on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the body established five years ago to safeguard human rights. No wonder these societies see so little progress.
The HRC has shown an expertise in manipulation of human rights principles in order to avoid criticism of and reform to abuses of its member states. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which controls the HRC’s agenda and chooses its officials, has no interest in opening a discussion of the systematic oppression of women or minorities in their societies. Sadly, as long as the OIC controls this and other agencies, change in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Libya and the like, is doubtful.
To make matters worse, their control over these institutions is increasing — UN Women, a new agency formed to advance women’s rights, will include Saudi Arabia as a member. Yet again, those that violate basic rights will control international arenas designed to hold them accountable.
Unfortunately, the human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) created to offset the unethical behavior and biases of governments have become accomplices. In advance of the HRC’s review process, NGO superpowers Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Amnesty International submitted a proposal with glaring omissions. The document failed to note the hypocrisy of the sitting council members or the fact that condemnation of Israel is the only permanent agenda item. Both examples come at the expense of addressing real human rights abuses around the world.
This is indicative of the wider exploitation of human rights rhetoric by NGOs and lack of accountability. Amnesty International suspended a senior staff member/whistleblower after she condemned Amnesty’s alliance with an alleged Taliban supporter. Amnesty’s interim secretary general then defended the organization’s actions by noting that “jihad in self-defense” is not “antithetical to human rights.” The fallout from this scandal severely damaged the credibility of one of the world’s supposed leaders in the protection of human rights.
But that was not even the most egregious case. During the Gaza flotilla incident, human rights rhetoric was abused and manipulated to an extraordinary extent. HRW, Amnesty, and smaller NGOs failed to note that Turkish IHH, the main flotilla organizer and a member of Union of the Good, is an umbrella of more than 50 Islamic organizations designated by the U.S. government as “an organization created by Hamas leadership to transfer funds to the terrorist organization.” NGO networks repeatedly distorted international law by referring to the Gaza situation as “collective punishment” and termed Israeli force “excessive,” stripping away the confrontational and violent nature of the alleged “humanitarian activists.” The NGO activism led to unbalanced reports that claimed Israel never disengaged from Gaza, among other statements making a mockery of universal human rights.
In order for next year’s Human Rights Day to be a celebration, the powerful NGOs must stand behind the countries standing up to the international bullies. This unfortunately has not been the case. Canada defended Israel’s right to self-defense and cut funding to NGOs that demonize Israel by invoking the empty rhetoric of “apartheid” and bringing “lawfare” cases against Israeli officials. Instead of applauding, HRW chastised Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying that “Canada no longer acts as a leader — or at least the kind of leader that once was so widely admired.” HRW was echoing a viewpoint favored by the OIC, and the OIC reportedly punished Canada by conspiring to deny it a seat on the UN Security Council.
For individuals committed to fulfilling the true intentions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rhetoric and basic moral standards associated with that document must be reclaimed. Countries with open societies should be leading the international institutions that can serve as the vehicles for those reclamations. It is the closed societies that should be marginalized. The human rights NGOs, who wield so much power today, should demand nothing less.
Jason Edelstein is communications director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution that tracks non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that claim to promote human rights in the Middle East.