Seven months after the United Nations General Assembly created a Human Rights Council to replace the much-maligned Commission on Human Rights, the new council already has garnered a level of condemnation that its predecessor took decades to achieve. Much of this criticism is justified. The council has failed to take concrete action or even to condemn serious human rights abuses in places like Darfur, Burma, Uzbekistan or Colombia. Yet it has adopted three one-sided resolutions condemning Israeli human rights violations, none of which even mentions abuses by armed Palestinian groups or Hezbollah.
Jewish organizations justifiably have been outraged by the council’s partisan approach to Israel. Human Rights Watch labeled the council’s treatment of the conflict in Lebanon “a blow to its credibility and an abdication of its responsibility to protect human rights for all.”
Given the extraordinarily high expectations when the council opened its first session in Geneva this past June, this is a stunning fall from grace. There are some who already are prepared to pronounce the council dead on arrival. But the obituary writers should put away their pens. While the council is in deep trouble, it can be saved if supporters of human rights exert leadership and mount an effective drive to win over moderate states from all regions of the world.
The council is foundering for two reasons: first, the role played by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has fought doggedly within the council to shield states (other than Israel) from criticism; and second, the failure of states that ordinarily support human rights to act as an effective counterweight to the OIC.
Seventeen council members belong to the OIC, and three OIC members, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan, respectively chair the council’s regional groups for Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. OIC members, led by Pakistan, have acted in virtual unison to undermine the council. For example, when four of the council’s independent experts reported the findings of their visit to Lebanon and Israel, state after state from the OIC took the floor to denounce the experts for daring to look beyond Israeli violations to discuss Hezbollah’s as well.
States that support human rights, meanwhile, were silent. Thirty-seven of the council’s 47 members are considered democracies, and 26 have been labeled “free” by Freedom House. Yet only Chile spoke in defense of the experts and their report. This gap illustrates a much broader problem: the absence of leadership from states that supported the creation of a stronger, more effective council, and the willingness of moderate states to side with regimes that have notoriously bad human rights records and nefarious agendas.
The European Union and Latin American states have been anemic in raising their voices to protect human rights. E.U. member states need to speak sooner and more forcefully on the issues that they care about, but thus far they have been hamstrung by their desire to first achieve consensus. When they finally formulate a position, all too often they delegate responsibility to the country that holds the E.U. presidency (currently Finland) to speak on their behalf, allowing obstructionist states to dominate debate. E.U. members need to recognize that many voices singing the same tune can be more powerful than one singing alone. Latin American states, such as Argentina and Chile, have a crucial role to play in filling the leadership void. They need to reach out to moderate states in Africa and Asia where their views will have added legitimacy given their histories of overcoming human rights abuses at home.
Although the United States voted against creation of the council and is not a member, it still must actively support these efforts rather than cede the floor to the OIC. The United States should work behind the scenes to push for stronger leadership from traditional human rights supporters, to encourage swing states to join in efforts to strengthen the council and to put pressure on American allies such as Pakistan and Egypt to change their obstructive behavior.
The OIC’s mantra has been that the council should work cooperatively with abusive governments rather than condemn them. Since states tend to fear the airing of their own dirty laundry, many have bought into this argument. Others simply have resigned themselves to the notion that the council will not be able to speak out more forcefully. But while cooperation, through training and technical assistance, can help willing governments improve their human rights records, the council must be willing to condemn states that are intransigent and to take concrete actions against those that egregiously violate human rights.
To get back in the game, states that support the cause of human rights need to come together to build a council that can provide real protection for victims of abuses. Progressive states must stop being so timid when it comes to focusing on abuses in places like Chechnya, Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe. They should rally support to confront violators of human rights and expose obstruction of efforts to do so.
The council’s future also depends on convincing swing states from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe to support real action by the council and, when necessary, to be willing to go against the well-established tradition of voting with their regional blocs. These states need to know that if they side with the Pakistans and Algerias of the council to block efforts to address situations like Darfur, their conduct in Geneva will be made known, and they will pay a price both back home and in their international reputation.
Despite the council’s disappointing record to date, it’s too early to pull the plug. Instead, its critics should push for leadership from supporters of human rights and encourage the council’s member states to vote their conscience, not their location. The victims of human rights abuses deserve that much.
Peggy Hicks is Human Rights Watch’s global advocacy director.