The 61 st anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10 provides occasion to reflect on the attitude of various UN member-states towards one of the most important human rights institutions in the world the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The UNHRC was created by the UN General Assembly on March 15,2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights which was viewed by many as a forum for selective fingerpointing by countries. Kofi Annan had hoped that the new body would help in winnowing politics out from the human rights agenda. Although the new Council has made some substantial gains,human rights concerns are being increasingly subsumed by realpolitik.
An important condition for being admitted to the 47 Council is that members shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. The experience so far suggests that a number of Human Rights Council members are observing the above requirement more in breach than in practice.
Two pressing and urgent issues that have come into sharp focus in 2009 are (i) the adoption of the UN fact-finding report on the violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the war in Gaza in 2008-2009 and,(ii) the continued scrutiny of Sudan through an independent UN expert. Although the Council has passed resolutions on both,events leading up to their final passage show how politics typically endangers human rights protection and promotion at the UN.
In April this year,Council appointed an independent fact finding mission mandated to investigate all violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009,whether before,during or after. The high profile mission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone,an eminent human rights defender and anti-apartheid activist submitted its report in September. The members concluded that Operation Cast Lead,as the Israeli forces termed it,was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish,humiliate and terrorise a civilian population,radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself,and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability. The mission called upon the UNHRC to endorse its recommendations and urged the Israeli government to start criminal investigations in the national courts where there is sufficient evidence of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as part of Israels obligations under international law.
Despite its evidence based unequivocal findings of culpability,voting patterns on the resolution to endorse the missions report revealed strongly politicised fault lines. France,the Netherlands and the UK are three countries that have been extremely vocal on the need to advance human rights at UN forums. But when it came to adopting the Gaza fact finding missions report,the Netherlands voted against the resolution and the UK and France did not cast their vote. The US the new era of engagement notwithstanding challenged many of the reports conclusions,terming them flawed. On the other side,Council members who are also part of the Organisation of Islamic Conference strongly supported the missions findings as expected.
The Gaza-Goldstone vote stands in sharp contrast to the equally important and pressing issue of rights violations in Sudan. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the civil war in Sudan between different ethnic and religious groups. Abuses by Sudanese government-backed forces and rebels have been extensively documented. The UN Security Council recommended that the International Criminal Court investigate the violence regardless of who perpetrated it. Western bloc Council members who did not support the imperative for justice for the victims of the Gaza operation have nevertheless stood united in their resolve to continue UN oversight of the events in Sudan. In June this year,they voted on extending UN special representatives mandate on Sudan. But Egypt,Indonesia,Malaysia,Pakistan and Saudi Arabia which have championed the need to address the violations of human rights in Gaza voted to protect the Sudanese regime from international scrutiny.
This across-the-board double standard at this new and important UN body has serious implications for the lives and rights of thousands of people. Sadly,what held true for the UN Commission on Human Rights and was pointed out in Kofi Annans report titled In larger freedom: towards development,security and human rights for all now holds true for the UNHRC. States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticise others. Routinely,governments seeking justice for victims in one region of the world are willing and able to obstruct justice in another.
Unlike Brazil,which has taken a consistent principled stand in the debates on both of these issues,India voted on the Gaza-Goldstone report but did not support continued international scrutiny of Sudans human rights record by a special rapporteur. Every vote at the Council which is only 3 years old determines its credibility,builds or mars its reputation and pre-disposes its future directions. Since double standards bedevil all sides of every political device,the future of the Council remains uncertain. One can only hope for honest and moral leadership in the future, so that the founding values of the UN can become reality rather than distant aspiration.
It is time for the international community to hold up a mirror to governments that hav abandoned human rights issues to serve their narrow interests. It is vital that civil society exposes the double standards being practised at the UN and urges these governments to follow the examples of the few that have imbibed the founding values of the UN,in both word and deed.
The writer is the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Mandeep Tiwana is a human rights defender working with an international NGO in South Africa
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