The 59th session of the UN Human Rights Commission opened in Geneva on Monday. The spectacle of the opening session makes clear why UN New York bodies have been found wanting on Iraq.

Assuming the commission chairmanship was the representative of Libya, Najat Al-Hajjaji. As she started to speak, hundreds of leaflets were dropped in silence from second-floor balconies by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris. They read: ”The UN has finally appointed someone who knows what she is talking about! Disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests, detention without charge or trial, pervasive censorship . . . Ms. Al-Hajjaji can be proud of her new job . . . Libya . . . knows a thing or two about human rights violations.”

This prompted the Cuban delegate to take the floor and demand immediate action to withdraw the credentials of the group. His call was met by sustained applause from other delegations, which at this year’s commission include Algeria, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe. The real threat to us all, ranted the Cuban, was imperialist hegemony.

In case there was any doubt as to what the senior UN intergovernmental human rights body is about, the chairwoman was obligingly transparent. In her opening remarks, which past incumbents have understood as a general welcome and vision of the session to come, the Libyan threw down the gauntlet. First on her list of priorities was the Middle East, where she spoke only of ”Palestinians humiliated, killed and deprived of self-determination.” Next, came the United States, to which she directed without name, the following diatribe: ”We see black clouds gathering . . . ominous of a catastrophic war which will certainly violate all human rights . . . Some countries . . . violat[e] the rights of migrants and refugees and minorities and even visa applicants . . . We will have to treat the root causes of anger and frustration. Among the causes there is . . . double standards.”

Statements were also made by South Africa on behalf of the UN African regional group, Malaysia on behalf of the UN Asian regional group, and Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This was the sum total of the speakers on the opening morning. They weren’t shy about making their views known. The context of a human rights commission was no impediment. They complained about country-specific resolutions directed at their countries, called for an end to ”naming and shaming,” for more responsible participation from NGOs, increasing the number of paid personnel in the UN-human rights bureaucracy from their countries and objected to information-sharing about women’s rights violations between the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

In the meantime, High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello tried to distinguish himself and his future UN career from this sinking ship. Nevertheless, after opening generalities, he said: ”I think particularly of the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” And what did he think? Security and freedom from terrorism required peace, and that in turn required a foundation of human rights. No clarion call from the high commissioner that terrorism lays waste any such foundation. On the contrary, he said, agonizingly seeking some middle ground: ”Terrorism is a form of political expression. Certainly, it is not without reasons, some probably better than others.”


Opening day just about summed up what’s wrong with the UN:

  • Western governments are timid, ashamed to be forthright about values, and notoriously cowed by baseless accusations of imperialism and evil hegemony
  • Repetition of the lies about double standards have a habit of taking root–all you have to do is watch British Prime Minister Tony Blair ape the
  • "Israel equals Iraq" profanity
  • The idea of the UN as a harmless forum for blowing off steam, or a feel-good sanctuary for perpetual losers on the actual protection of rights scale, is dangerously naive.

The sooner one recognizes that diplomacy severed from moral moorings has serious consequences, the better. One is reminded of the hapless Iraqi dissident who weeks ago frantically climbed into a UN weapons inspector’s Jeep in Iraq, only to be hauled off by Iraqi guards to certain torture. Commenting after the incident, Chief Inspector Hans Blix told reporters: "What an inelegant way of approaching UN inspectors."

"Technicalities over realities” was how former Swedish Foreign Minister Per Ahlmark described Blix.

The UN Human Rights Commission will certainly be full of elegant parties of the diplomats, by the diplomats and for the diplomats. But for those of you whose loved ones found themselves instead sitting on the bus or airplane beside a suicide bomber, your invitation to the UN Human Rights Commission is in the mail.

Anne Bayefsky is an international lawyer and a member of the governing board of the Geneva-based UN Watch.

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