January 29, 2008; Page A16
Last week the U.N. Human Rights Council held an emergency session, organized by Arab and Muslim nations, to condemn Israel for its military actions in the Gaza strip. That the council is capable of swift and decisive action is a welcome surprise; that Israel remains the only nation to provoke such action is not. In the 17 months since its inception, the body has passed 13 condemnations, 12 of them against Israel.
The council replaced what was widely viewed as a cancer on the United Nations — an ineffectual "Commission on Human Rights" that also had a single-minded focus on Israel. According to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "the selectivity and politicizing of its activities [were] in danger of bringing the entire U.N. system into disrepute."
The removal of the diseased commission two years ago was heralded by U.N. officials as "the dawn of a new era." Its replacement was designed to have stricter standards for membership, and rules to prevent politicized voting. But such safeguards were neutered by the time the new Human Rights Council was approved, and the results are that the council is no better than its predecessor.
The problems begin with the council’s composition. Only 25 of its 47 members are classified as "free democracies," according to Freedom House’s ranking of civil liberties. Nine are classified as "not free." Four — China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia — are ranked as the "worst of the worst." These nations are responsible for repeated violations of the U.N.’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it is they who dominate the council, leading a powerful bloc of predominantly Arab and African nations that consistently vote as a unit.
These regimes have repeatedly used the council as a powerful tool for shielding themselves from scrutiny and meting out criticism along stark political lines. According to Human Rights Watch, the council has turned a blind eye to at least 26 countries — the sites of some of the world’s worst human-rights crises.
In some cases, the council has actively eroded the level of monitoring. Last year, when Cuba drew fire for persecuting journalists, and Belarus for political imprisonments and rigged elections, the council responded by removing monitors from both countries.
As fresh waves of violence convulsed Darfur in December, the council responded by dismissing the team of experts tasked with monitoring atrocities in that region. Sudan’s closest allies, Egypt and China, have led the council in shielding the Sudanese regime.
Even mild resolutions, like a Canadian proposal requesting the prosecution of those responsible for abuses in Darfur, have been rejected. Reports from U.N. fact-finding missions implicating Sudan’s government in torture, rape and mass murder — including one led by Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams earlier this year — have been discarded. And while world leaders labeled the Sudanese regime’s actions as genocide, the council continued to commend Sudan’s conduct and assign blame to "all parties" involved. In the face of the world’s worst human-rights crisis, it has refused to issue a single condemnation.
The council’s defenders point out nominal improvements over the old commission. More of its seats are held by free democracies. However, these nations have performed anemically, remaining too quiet and acquiescing too frequently. Democratic members such as Canada, France, Germany and Britain must do more to make their presence felt, and work harder to prevent abusive regimes from commandeering the council.
Powerful democracies not on the council — including the United States — should press those who are to use their positions within the body to the fullest extent. But given their track record thus far, the chances of democracies finding their voice seem slim.
The best hope for recovery lies in a system of "universal periodical review" slated to begin in April. This would compel the council to review the human rights records of all U.N. states, not just a narrow selection of their choosing. Council members should work to ensure that the system is implemented with impartiality and rigor. But if the council’s reviews of Sudan are any indicator of the quality of assessments to come, then even periodical reviews may make little difference.
Another cancer has grown in the old commission’s place, and it is just as malignant. U.N. member states should be prepared to call for a fresh start. A new body should be built, with the safeguards initially proposed for this one — such as the required approval of two-thirds of the U.N. to attain membership — left intact. A forum that serves as a real tool in service of human rights is worth fighting for.
Mr. Farrow, a student at Yale Law School, is a UNICEF spokesperson and has worked on human-rights issues at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.