UNHRC Used By Dictators To Undermine Human Rights
The recent incidents on the streets of countries as far apart as Libya and Bahrain, Tunisia and Iran have riveted the Western world to its television sets and Twitter accounts. The sight of authoritarian regimes gunning down their own people as though they were swatting flies has us outraged. Western politicians and human rights activists issue sober statements. Western journalists devote indignant column inches to the question of ‘how could they?’ But one thing is conspicuous by its absence; any honest and thorough appraisal of how the West has been complicit for years in ensuring that such human rights abuses could come about.
To our disgrace, we in the West have largely stood by silently whilst the world’s premier human rights institution, the UN Human Rights Council, has been monopolised by nations which belong to the cadre of those today firing on their own civilians in the streets of Benghazi and Tehran.
The Human Rights Council currently includes members such as Libya, Bahrain, China, Jordan, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that its resolution of establishment demands that “members elected to the council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”. Iran sits on the UN’s ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ along with Zimbabwe. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the UNHRC has been busier attempting to push resolutions on the subject of the ‘Defamation of Religion’ than it has in upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in some of its member countries.
The dysfunctional nature of the UNHRC is all too apparent when one considers that human rights in Darfur, Tibet, North Korea or Zimbabwe have never been discussed in that forum or that the best it could come up with regarding Sudan was an expression of “deep concern”. In fact, the only country to have ever been specifically condemned by the UNHRC is a multicultural democracy with equal rights for women, homosexuals, religious and ethnic minorities which has a free press and an independent judiciary system – Israel.
That country alone was the subject of no less than 15 condemnations during the period since the UNHRC’s establishment on March 15th 2006 and January 24th 2008 – nine of those within its first year of functioning. Three months after its establishment, the UNHRC voted to make a review of alleged human rights abuses by Israel a permanent feature of every Council session. No other country on earth was deemed deserving of such intense scrutiny.
And so women continued to be stoned to death and homosexuals hung in Iran. Young girls continued to suffer female genital mutilation in Egypt and forced marriages in Pakistan. Women’s suffrage is still denied in Saudi Arabia and conditioned in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Freedom of expression and the press continues to be severely limited in China, Iran, Syria, Libya and Yemen, to name but a few.
Meanwhile, the liberal Western world has stood by and watched these and many other human rights abuses continue and even exacerbate. In the wake of the killing and execution of hundreds of Iranians who demonstrated against the stolen elections in their country in June 2009, it was not the UNHRC which issued a (non-binding) condemnation of those human rights violations, but the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly.
Only months later, the UNHRC completed its ‘universal periodic review’ of human rights in Iran. Its conclusions were as follows:
"The Human Rights Council...Adopts…the report of the Working Group on the Islamic Republic of Iran, together with the views of the Islamic Republic of Iran concerning the recommendations and/or conclusions, as well as its voluntary commitments and its replies presented before the adoption of the outcome by the plenary to questions or issues that were not sufficiently addressed during the interactive dialogue in the Working Group.”
During the process of this review, the UNHCR heard from Iranian representatives, one of whom informed the council that:
“A salient feature of our constitution is its explicit and extensive reference to...the main pillars of human rights... Iran [has a] firm commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights ...Iran is one of the prominent democratic states in the region.”
Female Iranian representatives at the review claimed that:
“The significant advancement of Iranian women’s status in the society during the period of 30 years after the victory of the Islamic revolution under the auspices of the strategic national policy and programs is undeniable.”
And even a token Christian was brought along in order to inform the UNHRC that:
“Under the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, race, ethnicity, and religion do not distinguish among people, bestowing superiority to one group over another.”
Subsequently, other countries were afforded the opportunity to give their perspective on the state of human rights in Iran.
“Venezuela congratulated Iran on “shed[ding] light on the efforts and commitment undertaken by the country to promote and protect human rights.” Lebanon praised “the efforts made by the Islamic Republic of Iran to promote…the rights of women.” Libya “commend[ed] the national legislation in the field of human rights.” Syria declared “The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran…consolidates human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people as a basic principle of the general policy of the republic.” And Zimbabwe fawned: “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights is glaringly noticeable.”
As surreal as it may seem, Iran was then given the opportunity to accept or reject the recommendations made to it during the course of the review.
Within 48 hours, Iran rejected recommendations to “abolish in practice, public executions by hanging and stoning… Prosecute security officials involved in torturing, raping or killing…Repeal or amend all discriminatory provisions against women and girls in national legislation…[E]nd discrimination and harassment against persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities….”
In response to the recommendation to “end its severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, association and assembly; and end the harassment and persecution of journalists and bloggers,” Iran wrote and the UN published: “press and publications are free to express their opinions except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”
In response to the recommendation to “consider the elimination of cruel punishment, including…stoning,” Iran said: “The term 'cruel punishment' is applicable to none of the punishments stipulated in the laws of the country.”
The UNHRC went on to ‘adopt’ these Iranian positions, and so not only did the sell-out of the human rights of the Iranian people by the leading international human rights body become complete, but Iran was even further rewarded a few months down the line with a place on the Commission for the Status of Women.
Little wonder then that the Iranian government has no qualms whatsoever about repeating the exercise of gunning down protesters on its streets in this latest cycle of unrest. Neither should we be surprised that other authoritarian regimes feel at liberty to behave in the same reprehensible manner: they know full well that there will be no real price to pay at the club of nations where a clean slate on human rights is not a requirement for membership of its human rights council.
At this time, the UNHRC is under review. When it was established in 2006, the UN General Assembly stipulated that a review of its work and functioning should be carried out after five years. Two Intergovernmental Working Group sessions have been held so far and conclusions are expected sometime between March and June 2011.
Amnesty International has raised serious concerns over the efficacy of this review, claiming that “[t]ime and time again, during the review these Governments have reminded us that this is a review not a reform process. That everything should stay as it is.”
If this unprecedented opportunity to reform a UNHRC which has shown itself time and time again to be unfit for purpose is squandered – and according to AI’s warnings that seems to be exactly what is happening – we in the West will continue to be complicit by our silence in giving carte blanche to some of the world’s most cruel regimes to carry on abusing their citizens. And even if a few of those regimes appear to be currently in the process of being overthrown, if our concern and support for those on the streets of Cairo, Benghazi, Tehran and Bahrain is to be more than just a fashionable fad, then we need to ensure that any government to come will be held properly accountable by the international community on the subject of human rights. We cannot carry on being silent about a dysfunctional UN Human Rights Council which has been selling out the people now protesting for too many years.
Hadar Sela is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist