Tuesday, March 14, 2006

UN Human Rights Commission "reform" - or rather, non-reform

Tomorrow the General Assembly is set to vote on reform of the infamous UN Human Rights Commission - to replace it with a "new" Human Rights Council. Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly, has worked out a compromise reform that would supposedly reform the Commission. Unfortunately, for reasons laid out below in the International Herald Tribune opinion piece by George Mitchell, Democratic former Senate Majority Leader, and Newt Gingrich, Republican former House Speaker, the compromise is fatally compromised from the very start.

This has not stopped much of the world from lambasting the Bush administration for being the sole holdout in the world against the compromise so-called reform. Kevin Jon Heller, at Opinio Juris blog, lays out the case against the United States, here, which I quote in full below:

US Alone in Opposing New Human Rights Council
by Kevin Jon Heller, Opinio Juris

According to IPS, the United States is now completely alone in opposing the U.N. proposal to create a new Human Rights Council. A significant majority of the U.N.'s 191 member states have come out in favor of the proposal, including the 25-member European Union and the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of developing nations. The proposal is also supported by nearly all of the major human-rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Foundation, Citizens for Global Solutions, Human Rights First, International Commission of Jurists, ActionAid International, and the World Organisation Against Torture. Together, the groups have released the following statement:

We believe that the draft resolution to establish a Human Rights Council presented by the President of the General Assembly is a sound basis to strengthen the UN's human rights machinery. World leaders pledged to do this when they met at the September 2005 World Summit. We call on all states to join the consensus that has emerged in countries from all regions of the world and to adopt the draft resolution. The proposed Human Rights Council will be better equipped than the existing Commission on Human Rights to address urgent, serious and long-running human rights situations wherever they occur. It will hold more frequent meetings throughout the year instead of only one. More competitive election procedures will encourage a membership that is more dedicated to the protection of human rights. Instead of slates being adopted by acclamation, members must be elected individually and a higher threshold of votes applies - at least 96 individual votes out of 191 members. A country’s human rights record will be taken into account by those voting and those committing gross violations of human rights can be suspended from the body. All members must fully cooperate with the Council and they will undergo a review of their human rights record through a new universal review system that will apply to all countries. This is an historic opportunity to create a better human rights protection system within the United Nations.

The key U.S. demand is a 2/3 majority requirement for election to the new Council, which would make it difficult for "habitual human rights abusers" such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma to be elected. Jan Eliasson, the president of the General Assembly, lobbied for such a requirement -- without much help from John Bolton, who missed 29 out of 30 negotation sessions and made numerous other diplomatic missteps, as I discussed here -- but the majority requirement was the best he could do.

There is no question that the new HRC would be better off with a 2/3 requirement. But the majority requirement is a dramatic improvement over the slate system used by the Human Rights Commission, especially given that the voting will be by secret ballot -- making it easier for states to cast votes against human-rights offenders they cannot politically or economically afford to oppose publicly.

Bolton's unwavering opposition to the HRC is also -- and predictably -- turning into a public-relations disaster for the U.S., leading many states to conclude that the real reason the U.S. opposes the HRC is that it is fears becoming one of the HRC's primary targets:

"We feel that the United States is in reality trying to weaken the U.N. human rights machinery, not strengthening it, perhaps for selfish reasons," says one Third World diplomat. With rising criticism of U.S. human rights abuses, particularly in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, Washington is fearful of the fact that the torture and mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. soldiers will be high on the agenda of the new Human Rights Council. "I can see no other reason why Washington wants to kill the proposal," he added.

For my own part, I find it puzzling to assert that the US demanding a 2/3 vote and a smaller council would somehow serve its "selfish" interests. As I noted in a comment on Opinio Juris:

One thing I don't understand - I'm not being coy, I really would like someone to explain to me - how it is that the US holding out for a 2/3 vote would accord with the idea, mentioned by a Third World diplomat above, that the US fears becoming a primary target. If the HRC required a 2/3 vote, wouldn't it be that much easier for a smaller number of states to keep the US off? If the US wanted to protect itself from attacks on its own human rights record, why would it not support exactly what the leading human rights abusers want - as large a HRC as possible with as low a required vote as possible - eg, 47 members (reduced from what, 50-something, and a 50% voting requirement? I have heard this argument made repeatedly in dark, conspiratorial tones from UN diplomats, the NGO community, human rights types, and still have not heard anyone articulate how exactly the US holding out for a smaller council and a 2/3 vote serves to protect the US from attacks on its record. Maybe I just don't get something everyone else finds obvious - I mean that seriously - but although the US may be holding out for something unachievable, how does its position protect it from attacks on its record?

I also have to say that I find it remarkable, to say the least, that the leading human rights organizations and NGOs would come out in favor of so obviously inadequate a proposal as that put forth by Eliasson. It may very well have been the best that Eliasson could do, but then, he's a diplomat who must operate in compromises - but in that case, the proper response from a principled organization would be to say, sorry, this is so inadequate that it merely duplicates what went on before, and we're not signing on.

What the letter from the NGOs quoted above mostly indicates is the degree to which these organizations have abandoned principle in favor of being "players," in which (a) it is not okay to reject something that has been arranged by parties as respectable as Eliasson and agreed to by the good guys and (b) it is not okay to join the United States government, at least under Bush, in rejecting something that one's natural allies, among the "players," have all agreed to. The episode reinforces my view that the human rights organizations have generally opted for "internationalism" and the pull of being players among international organizations over "universal" principles. They engage in the charade that "international" is the same as "universal," but they're not - and less so than before tomorrow's sorry vote.

Mitchell and Gingrich co-chaired a US congressionally funded task force on UN reform organized through the United States Institute of Peace. I was one of the experts for the task force. It reached entirely bipartisan, mainstream conclusions, including basic principles about reform of the Human Rights Commission that include all the points that the Bush administration is holding out for. Its conclusions were widely praised - as I recall, the Economist editorialized that if those basic points about the Commission were not enacted, well, better to close up shop at the Commission than continue to live a lie. Many others followed suit.

That seemed fairly obvious at the time. Not any more and, most remarkably, not among those for whom human rights principles are supposed to - well, not objects of negotiation and compromise but, you know ... principles. Let Eliasson do the compromises - human rights organizations should be holding to the basic markers. Which, naturally, they always do when going after the US and the Bush administration - but it's a different story, apparently, when maintaining good relations with those with whom they maintain a vital relationship of mutual backscratching.

More precisely, the relationship between so-called global civil society - the NGOs - and international organizations such as the UN is one of mutual legitimation. International organizations stand in desperate need of legitimacy - since they have no democratic legitimacy, they seek it from organizations such as NGOs that purport to offer it to them as stand-ins for the "peoples of the world." I don't recall voting for NGOs to represent me as a citizen of the world and neither do you, but that's their claim - they represent the peoples of the planet. In turn, the NGOs gain from international organizations their own form of legitimacy - the legitimacy of being the world's representatives. It's a cozy relationship of mutual legitimation - not just cozy, but a completely closed circle.

So Kofi Annan tells assemblies of NGO activist that they are the constituencies that, unlike mere governments, represent people in the UN system. What NGO can resist that siren song? And in return, they used to function as a kind of loyal opposition - opposing some parts of the UN program while affirming the basic legitimacy of the UN as the world's system of global governance over the "mere" and parochial claims of nation-states. What we see in this move to be a player in accommodating compromises of such an astonishing kind on something as basic as human rights is to drop the idea of even being an opposition within the basic structure of legitimacy, and just ... suck up.

But Mitchell and Gingrich have come back with the position that human rights NGOs not in thrall to their own "player" roles should have been saying, in the IHT, here. It is vitally important and I reproduce it in whole:

Rethinking UN reform

Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell
International Herald Tribune

We have worked together during the past year to promote reform of the United Nations in the common belief that an effective and capable organization could be a force for achieving Eleanor Roosevelt's hope that the United Nations would be "a guiding beacon along the way to the achievement of human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the world."

The congressionally mandated task force we jointly led recommended abolishing the discredited UN Human Rights Commission in favor of a new Human Rights Council, ideally composed of democracies, recognizing that democratic governments offer the best protection of human rights.

We are gratified that the UN General Assembly recently proposed abolishing the commission, and is now taking the first steps to define its replacement. But we cannot embrace the design of the new council that has been put forward.

In our report to Congress, we concluded that a major component of UN reform must be repair of the UN human rights system. We found that the Human Rights Commission had become so distorted that "countries with appalling, even monstrous, human rights records - Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe, Libya, and Cuba, to name a few - could all be seated there." We believed that the situation had deteriorated to the point that the commission was failing at its primary task: monitoring, promoting, and enforcing human rights.

But the plan offered by the General Assembly does not do enough to redress these weaknesses, and is inadequate for several reasons.

First, it does not provide enforceable standards for membership. We recognize that in an international institution like the UN - which has no democratic preconditions for membership - there will always be limits to America's ability to render its infrastructure and decisions compatible with American values and interests. Nevertheless our task force recognized the fundamental importance of denying membership in the UN body charged with the protection of human rights to any states under UN sanctions and/or states unwilling to accept monitoring missions. We stand by our task force recommendation.

Second, the proposed council will be dominated by regional groupings. The plan emphasizes "equitable geographic distribution," apportioning the 47 seats among the various regional groups, which shifts the balance of membership away from Western democracies.

Our task force made it clear that the United States should oppose any efforts by regional groupings to nominate members of the council solely on the basis of rotation, which would be likely to sacrifice the fundamental values of human rights to regional consensus and political solidarity. We also advocated a smaller council than the 53-member commission. We stand by our recommendations: A new council should be smaller still.

Third, the plan provides that election to the council will be by a simple majority vote of the General Assembly through a secret ballot. This is a major step backward from Secretary General Kofi Annan's original proposal - supported by the United States - that called for a two-thirds majority vote for membership. This weakness of the plan, more than any other aspect, would ensure that the new council would not be sufficiently different from the commission.

Finally, the plan requires a two-thirds vote for removal of members, making it impractical to remove human rights violators from the council. Considering that 50 percent of the General Assembly could not even agree that Sudan was guilty of human rights violations in November, this provision holds little hope that human rights violators will be removed from the council should they get on. Instead of erecting a high bar for membership, the current plan would erect one for removal. This is exactly backwards.

Eleanor Roosevelt said "the field of human rights is not one in which compromises on fundamental principles are possible." Unfortunately, the proposed compromise put forward for the Human Rights Council does not adequately address the core institutional problem with the current commission - the requirement to keep human rights violators off the council, while keeping human rights defenders on.We call on the United States to mount a major diplomatic effort at the United Nations and in the capitals of the world's other democracies, to press for a strong and effective Human Rights Council that lives up to the UN's founding principles.

Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and George Mitchell is a former U.S. Senate majority leader.

Finally, here is the Wall Street Journal's editorial on the subject:

Wall Street Journal

Council of Despair

March 14, 2006;
Page A18

The United Nations General Assembly is scheduled to vote tomorrow to establish the Human Rights Council, which is intended to replace its discredited Human Rights Commission. Amnesty International is for it, as is Secretary General Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, the European Union and most of the U.N.'s member states. So it all but goes without saying that the Council -- at least as it is currently conceived -- is a moral disaster waiting to happen.

We've previously argued that among the proposed Council's defects is its size. The existing Commission has 53 member states, which even Mr. Annan conceded was too many for any human-rights body to be effective. U.N. sages proposed bringing that number down by a whopping eight seats. But even that proved to be too bold, and now the U.N. proposes a Council of 47 seats. Think of it as the concession the U.N. made for Belarus and Egypt when those paragons of liberal democracy next take their seats on the Council.

Then there is how member states would be selected. Again, the initial proposal for the Council set the bar fairly high, requiring that countries be elected by two-thirds of the General Assembly. This would have dissuaded shady regimes from standing for membership, while allowing the U.S. and its allies to block those that did. But the two-thirds requirement has been dropped to a simple majority. Worse, seats are distributed by a formula that guarantees Africa, Asia and the Middle East -- the world's least democratic areas -- 26 Council seats, an absolute majority.

By contrast, the U.S. and the 27 other members of the so-called West European and Others Group would have the right to no more than seven seats. So get ready for the U.S. to duke it out with France, Malta and Luxembourg for a place at the table. Council members would also be forbidden from serving more than two consecutive three-year terms, so the U.S. would not have permanent representation. In this respect, the Council is even worse for American interests than the Commission it would replace.

Proponents point out that, unlike the Commission, the new body could suspend members who committed human-rights abuses. The good news here is that at least Israel would be safe from this kind of sanction -- but only because Israel will almost certainly never be elected to the Council. But the idea that any state short of Cambodia under Pol Pot would actually be booted from the Council is a faith-based proposition given U.N. history.

So far, the Bush Administration has stood firm in opposing the current version of the Council, at least until further changes are negotiated. One American proposal would be to permanently bar from the Council those countries that are under legally actionable, "Chapter VII" sanctions. Too tough, say critics, who want the U.S. to sign first and seek "future improvement" later. Among those future improvements: "Council members must uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights," according to former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth of the United Nations Foundation. But the whole point of replacing the Commission with the Council was to create that kind of baseline first.

As it is, there seems to be little chance that the U.S. will be able to prevent this Council from coming into existence: Unlike the Security Council, America has no veto in the General Assembly. But the U.S. does provide 22% of the U.N.'s assessed contributions (from which the Commission is funded) as well as more than $10 million in voluntary contributions for the U.N.'s human-rights bodies, which is twice as much as the next largest donor. Senator Norm Coleman (R., Minnesota) has proposed legislation that would "authorize the President to withhold up to 50% of the U.S. contributions to the U.N. if the President determines that . . . the U.N. is not making sufficient progress to implement [reform]."

That is a sound suggestion. In the meantime, the U.S. can do the world a favor by voting against this ill-conceived Council, and by refusing to participate until the very modest demands the Administration has made are met.

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