Irwin Cotler, The Australian, October 04, 2010
THE UN Human Rights Council is the mandated UN body responsible for the promotion and protection of international human rights.
It was intended to improve on its discredited predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, which former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan critiqued for its “politicised” and “biased” decision-making, but it appears to have inherited and compounded the flaws of its predecessor.
The election of Libya — one of the world’s worst human rights violators — to the UN Human Rights Council as it commences its new session is an affront to the case and cause of human rights. Libya’s Gaddafi regime is notorious for its systematic and widespread violations of human rights, including its patterns of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and persecution of minorities, let alone the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Indeed, what is most disturbing is that an overwhelming majority of UN member states elected Libya to the council notwithstanding its international criminality, such that a global coalition of 27 non-governmental human rights groups — joined by victims of Libyan human rights violations — has now launched a campaign to remove Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya from the council.
This is but the latest in a series of breaches by the UN Human Rights Council of its mandate to protect the victims of human rights violations and hold the violators to account. Indeed, the council has turned its mandate on its head.
First, the council has turned a blind eye to the world’s most serious human rights violators, failing to adopt any resolution or investigative mandate for such human rights violator countries as China, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Russia or Iran, to name but a few — all being listed on Freedom House’s list of the 20 worst human rights abusers. While the UN General Assembly calls for countries to be elected to the council based on their human rights records, 24 out of 47 present members (51 per cent) fail to meet fundamental standards of democracy and human rights.
Second, according to the recent 2010 UN Watch Report and Scorecard, 18 out of the 30 key council resolutions that were adopted were prejudicial and counterproductive. These included resolutions praising Sudan for its “progress”; defining any discussion of terrorism committed in the name of Islam as a form of “defamation” and “racism”; commending Sri Lanka after it killed an estimated 20,000 civilians; and refusing to hold Hamas terrorism accountable.
Third, since its 2006 creation, 80 per cent of the council’s resolutions have singled out one member state — Israel — for differential and discriminatory treatment, thereby breaching the UN charter’s foundational principle of “equality for all nations, large and small”. Moreover, while the council has selectively singled out one member state, it continues to grant the major violators exculpatory immunity.
Fourth, in an appalling breach of its own principles and procedures, the UN Human Rights Council has institutionalised a permanent agenda item indicting one member state — agenda item No 7, which speaks of “Israeli human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories” — while agenda item No 8 speaks of “human rights violations in the rest of the world”. Here is an Alice in Wonderland situation where the conviction is secured before the hearing begins.
This not only galvanises the ongoing delegitimisation, if not the demonisation, of a member state of the UN, but it provides aid and comfort to those, such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who envisage “a world without Israel”, as well as those who seek to target and criminalise Israel alone as “the Jew among the nations”.
What, then, can be done in light of these assaults on the UN charter and the mandate of the Human Rights Council?
Australia, not unlike my country, Canada, has made important contributions to the UN for more than 60 years, including in the areas of international peace and security, human rights, development assistance and social, economic and environmental affairs. In particular, Australia has been a strong advocate of the human rights mandate of the council, and while not at present a member of the council, participates actively in its discussions.
Accordingly, Australia, in conjunction with Canada, the US and others of the community of democracies, should seek to promote and implement an eight-point action plan outlined by UN Watch as follows:
lHold the worst violators to account: seek accountability from the world’s most serious violators by introducing country-specific resolutions, and convene special sessions to address urgent situations of gross human rights violations.
lVigorously protect freedom of speech: defend freedom of speech and oppose the campaign of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to silence any discussion of terrorism or women’s rights by characterising it as a form of “defamation” and “racism”.
lEnd discriminatory and unequal treatment of Israel: combat the council’s obsessive adoption of one-sided and biased resolutions against a member state, and seek to remove the permanent agenda item No 7 that institutionalises such discriminatory treatment.
lDefend the rights of NGOs: vigorously defend human rights NGOs at the council, and preserve their historic role as independent voices that can hold governments to account.
lOppose the election of violators to the council: encourage countries with the strongest human rights record to stand for election to the council in their respective regional groups.
lEncourage positive work of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: defend the positive and independent work of the commissioner against escalating attempts to control her activities and agenda.
lProtect special rapporteurs: defend the council’s independent rights monitors from efforts to intimidate them or influence their work.
lStrengthen the universal periodic review through fair and informed questioning of every country reviewed.
The tragedy in all this is that a UN body, established for the protection of human rights, has become a human rights violator. In particular, these violations now take place under the protective cover of the UN, invoking the imprimatur of international law and marching under the banner of human rights. It is not only one state that is under assault, or the leading human rights violators who enjoy exculpatory immunity. The bell is tolling for the council and the cause of human rights. The time has come to sound the alarm and return the council to its founding principles and ideals.
Irwin Cotler is a member of parliament and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada. An emeritus professor of law at McGill University and board member of UN Watch, he delivered the Gandel Oration in Australia in July.