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On Point

The U.N. Human Rights Council: What's in a Name Change?


by Austin Bay
March 1, 2006



What's in a name change?

At the United Nations, the answer is "not much" -- unless substantial structural and organizational change occurs.

Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

For years, the rancid smell of hypocrisy and shame marked the sorry trail of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, as human rights violators like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Libya used the commission as a propaganda forum.

Their big target was the United States. Old-line Stalinists and al-Qaida theo-fascists applauded, but ultimately the spectacle of Sudan and Libya lecturing the United States and other democracies on human rights discredited the commission. Under the cover of anti-U.S. propaganda, the rogues used the commission to avoid criticism, investigation and sanction for their truly heinous rights violations.

Sudan's genocidal warfare in Darfur (which began in early 2003) sent a message even the politically correct "internationalista" crowd couldn't dismiss as "right-wing American assaults" on the United Nations. Hey, Gerhard and Jacques, including Sudan and its murderous ilk on a commission created to investigate and eliminate human rights violations does seem to undermine the entire project. Perhaps the United Nations' critics may have a case ...

In March 2005, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself acknowledged that the ability of Human Right's Commission members to stymie examination of their own records "casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations as a whole." (The Oil for Food scandal, which at the minimum Annan failed to oversee, also "casts a shadow.")

So the "shadowed" United Nations decided to consider a few alterations to the Human Rights Commission. After much study, a few intense debates and lots of chin-stroking, the committee tasked with tarting up the commission recommended ... drumroll ... changing the commission's name. Voila, The U.N. Human Rights Council.

Yes, they recommended a few minor structural changes -- and some of them are welcome correctives. However, the committee recommended aspirin when the commission needs an antibiotic. The committee proposal doesn't solve the central problem: ensuring that human rights offenders like Sudan are barred from membership on the council.

The U.S. United Nations ambassador isn't buying it -- and anyone interested in constructive reform shouldn't be, either.

For the record, I support the United Nations. I've seen relief programs sponsored by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees do vital work. But humanitarian aid operations require more than finances, coordination capabilities and expert personnel. They require moral credibility.

In February, the National Conference of Editorial Writers arranged a telephone interview with America's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton. Bolton spent an hour with us talking about U.N. reform, with the goal of restoring U.N. credibility.

Bolton argued that moving from commission to council is actually an opportunity for credible reform. "Our objective," he said " is a dramatic transformation ..." The reformers want to replace the current commission with a new body composed of nations with a demonstrated commitment to human rights. They also advocate requiring council members be approved by a two-thirds super-majority in the General Assembly. "We've got to make sure these offenders of human rights ... don't get on the commission."

In Bolton's view, "the opponents of reform have watered down" reform proposals and "we are now at a point where we have to decide if we are going to make significant reform or not." Reformers, Bolton said, "won't get another chance in the next two years to make the body 50 to 75 percent better."

According to Bolton, many countries "are very happy with the way decisions are currently being made. ... They don't want to be subjected to human rights scrutiny when appropriate." Bolton described a political game of lip service. Discussing rights abuses "in the abstract" is fine, just don't discuss and investigate verifiable real-world abuses.

"The HRC is the place where we can talk about human rights violations," he said. And in Bolton's view, the United States isn't exempt. " It's uncomfortable -- we face allegations ourselves. (But) if you want an effective human rights commission, you have to be able to conduct that kind of discussion (thoroughly and openly)."

Bolton wants significant change, not cosmetic swipes. An effective, responsive Human Rights Commission would be a major step toward genuine U.N. reform.

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