The United Nations vs. Human Rights
Jeane Kirkpatrick, the high-profile ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan administration, headed the US delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission meeting which convened in Geneva from March 16 to April 26.
Washington—The absence of prerequisites for membership has created a UN Commission on Human Rights in which many of the world’s worst human-rights abusers sit in judgment against governments that have long institutionalized the rule of law and respect for individual rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Human Rights Commission met in Geneva earlier this year to discuss, debate and decide issues concerning "the situation of human rights in the world." Since no standards exist, Libya was permitted to hold the chair, which resulted in a commission filled with an assortment of world-class rights abusers, including Syria, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Uganda among others.
Occasionally the discussions at the commission illuminate problems that exist in the world. More often they reflect the balance of power that exists within the UN.
Last year, the United States, a founding member, was denied a seat and a vote on the Human Rights Commission and was replaced by Syria. Explanations of all manner were offered to account for this anomaly, but it came down to the fact that not enough members of the commission had voted for a US presence.
This year, however, the US got the votes necessary for reelection to a three-year term, presumably because our delegates did more energetic lobbying and our colleagues understood that the US might withdraw its membership in the commission if the trend toward defeating democratic governments and preferring dictatorships persisted.
Also notable was the striking and unexpected fact that Russia voted almost exactly as it had during the Cold War in association with the same countries—almost all of which were the dictatorships present in the commission.
Equally interesting and much more encouraging was the high level of consensus and solidarity among the democratic states, except—alas—on issues involving Israel.
Cuba provided the greatest irony for this year’s session.
During the same days the Human Rights Commission was meeting in Geneva (early April) Fidel Castro’s government was sentencing 75 Cuban teachers, doctors, journalists and librarians to prison terms of 12 to 26 years—at trials lasting less than a day each. Indeed, given the age of most of those tried, the term imposed amounted to a life sentence. In addition to harsh punishment for the crime of dissent, the Cuban government organized a hasty trial and execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a ferry to Florida. No one was hurt in the attempt except the three executed. As usual, representatives of the Cuban government blamed the US for luring Cubans to our shores instead of asking themselves why so many Cubans are so eager to leave their homeland.
As shocking as Castro’s repression was, the fact that the Human Rights Commission took no action to express disapproval of the Cuban government’s violation of the human rights of its citizens was more shocking still.
All the Human Rights Commission did was to urge "the government of Cuba to receive the personal representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights" and decided "to consider" this matter further the next year. Last year, of course, the government of Cuba had refused to receive the designated UN representative. This year the Cuban government announced its intention to refuse cooperation even before the session ended. Other atrocities continue, but still no resolution was passed condemning repression in Chechnya either, or of slavery and repression in Sudan, or murder and violation of rights in Zimbabwe, or the continued victimization of the Falun Gong in China.
This is a scandal. Free people in open forums should not fail to protest brutal treatment of helpless citizens at the hands of ruthless governments. That is, after all, the traditional function of the UN Human Rights Commission.
Clearly, democratic states still suffer discrimination inside the UN and the Human Rights Commission.
As the world and the United States evaluate the role of the UN in the wake of the Iraq war, it is time to assess the role of the Human Rights Commission as well.
If the UN wants to be taken seriously on this and other issues, it must set some standards. Is it so ludicrous to require that those sitting in judgment of the human rights practices of others must first themselves respect human rights?