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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 2
Pentecost 2006

United Nations Human Rights Council:
New Name, Same Game?

by Mary Jo Anderson

The United Nations’ star moral voice, the discredited Commission on Human Rights, will be formally dismantled on June 16, 2006. Constructed on its foundation will be the “new” international human rights body, the United Nations Human Rights Council. The United States did not vote in favor of the creation of the Council. “New name, same game”, groused UN critics.

Council or Commission -- does it matter? -- ask dozens of civil society associations who will seek to influence the mechanism for the protection of basic rights on a global scale. The Church too will work to guide the new Council toward a human-centered orientation, principally through the Holy See Mission to the United Nations. Numerous Catholic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will also labor to address the preeminent threats to human rights.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who heads Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations, spoke during the deliberations in favor of the new Council, stating that “To reject the universality of basic human rights is to deny that the political fate of humanity can be affected by reason and choice. It is to give the last word in human affairs to force and accident. That would be contrary to all the principles upon which this Organization was founded”.

The Church has long pursued both the theoretical understanding and practical application of human rights as a matter of human solidarity. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights was established by a war-weary world in 1946. Its Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written with the aid of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. The goal was to build an international legal framework to protect fundamental rights and freedoms of all men. Even in war, certain actions were beneath the dignity of man -- such was the hope.

Today, the third millennium presents new issues of grave concern for the Church and the human family, including questions of bioethics, rights of migrants, human trafficking, religious freedom, and rights of conscience, the push for “homosexual rights”, among others matters. The first challenge may be to educate nations and individuals about severe consequences of ignoring human rights abuses in an interconnected world. Thus far the record for human rights initiatives by the UN is more often a tale of hijacking the process than defending the oppressed.

The stellar failures of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and its subsidiary treaty bodies and committees are the result of a wholesale politicization of all sorts “rights”. Thus the quip, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter” neatly summarizes the struggle to create an effective Human Rights body.

Examples of gross malfeasance within the HRC reached cartoon-ish levels save for the tragic loss of life. When “Catholic” Mary Robinson of Ireland served as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002) the HRC excused the methods of Palestinian terrorists since their cause was laudable, according to Jed Babbin, former US Undersecretary of Defense. Thus, in November of 2002 the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA, under the direction of HRC) stood by as Palestinian gunmen fired on Israeli targets from within an UNRWA run school.

Hamas members have been repeatedly employed by UNRWA to carry out their “peaceful” missions of mercy, according to Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University. Khalidi maintained that this was unsurprising as such a large percentage of the Palestinian population supported Hamas. Now, four years later, Hamas is the ruling government in the Palestinian Territory.

Worldwide regional conflicts within nations and cross-border strife compete for humanitarian relief as well as resettlement of refugees while the UN attempts to determine its role vis-à-vis the new Council. To that end the new body will meet this year in near continuous sessions whereas the HRC met one a year in Geneva.

Are Human Rights “Marketable”?
Indeed, when the new Council convenes its initial session on June 19, 2006, the first international crisis demanding its attention will be the horror of Darfur, the Sudanese region suffering genocidal attacks from “Arab militias”, the Sudanese government’s minions of terror. But if you stop the “man on the street” in Europe, Canada and the United States, most will be unable to offer to offer even the briefest sketch of the tragedy of Darfur. The few who can will vehemently disagree about how the “international community” should address the matter.

Proposals to send in the “blue helmets” of the UN’s coalition soldiers, in order to give enforcement power to any human rights mandate, are controversial. The shame of the Rwandan scandal, where UN Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that troops were withheld while thousands were massacred, is still fresh in the memory of UN detractors. Many view the withholding of troops as a political maneuver to insure that the “right” side gained control of key resources and territory. Equally disturbing is that the UN’s “peacekeeping” forces are not infrequently charged with collusion and even the rape and murder of the very people they are sent to protect. (To complicate matters, Osama bin Laden has called for his followers to “defend” Khartoum from an UN intrusion.)

While the racial war in Darfur region pits the non-Arab and Arab inhabitants against one another, most Catholics at least dimly recall the recent murderous rage of the Sudanese government against the Christians in the South of Sudan. When Christian forces moved closer to oil supplies in the south, Chinese soldiers appeared in the nation, ready to assist the Islamic government in Khartoum. Chinese oil interests trumped any concern for the genocide of Black Christians by Islamic forces. (Sunday Telegraph, Aug. 30, 2000)

Given the entanglements of political intrigue, global economic competition, centuries-old tribal rivalries and money under the table, can any human rights initiative have teeth? Other than paid representatives of the human rights industry and some opportunist celebrities does the world truly care about human rights abuses?

“The human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people”, claimed then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. (Village Voice April 25, 2000). Clearly this is too harsh, as many individuals and organizations care deeply and work sacrificially to bring about the recognition of fundamental rights. But it does raise the crucial question of mission for the UN’s new Council. The real world routinely puts commercial and political status before the rights of the oppressed. Nations will defend their power structure and economic interests long before human rights issues make it to their national agenda. These are the same nations that are seeking seats on the new Council.

Add to this reality the obvious strategy of using the Council to shield even the worse human rights abusers from sanction. This was the case when Sudan sought and was given a seat on the HRC in 2001 while the United States’s candidacy was snubbed. Other abusive governments that have been seated include Cuba, Libya, Nigeria, and of course, Communist China, where the one-child policy is viciously enforced. If such nations are held up to the world as human rights defenders, is it any wonder that the oppressed despair? Is it any wonder that the entire UN human rights process is viewed as a fig leaf on a naked emperor?

Out With the Old and in With the New
These questions, and the rising distrust of the United Nations, propelled the call for reform of the global institution. The icon of UN reform is to be the new Human Rights Council. The designation as a “Council” means that the new body will function at a higher level of authority than the former Human Rights Commission enjoyed as a subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council. According to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “Such a structure would offer architectural and conceptual clarity, as the United Nations already has Councils that deal with two other main purposes, security and development”. Annan cited a “proud history” of the old Commission but admitted, that the “new Council would help serve to overcome some growing problems -- of perception and in substance -- associated with the Commission, allowing for thorough reassessment of the effectiveness of the UN’s inter-governmental machinery in addressing human rights concerns”.

As a Council it will be a standing body, thus it is hoped to be free of the excessive politicization that plagued the annual six-week free-for-all session of the former HRC. In theory its integrity is insured by new rules for membership. Members of the new forty-seven seat Council were to be elected May 9, 2006, a month before the first session of the Council. To date sixty-five nations have submitted their candidacy for the Council. Annan insists that new members “abide by the highest human rights standards”. Does this proviso serve as notice to Sudan that it need not apply for membership?

To that end, national human rights groups are pressing their own governments not to apply for membership until/unless they first address abuses by the government at home. An example of this grassroots pressure is Pakistan, where a coalition of various Pakistani organizations and Development and National Commission for Justice and Peace, a group of Catholic churches, have asked the government to publicly pledge to keep specific commitments addressing the human rights concerns within their nation. (Including religious freedom -- recall the recent media fanfare over the conversion of an Afghan Muslim man to Christianity resulted in the man seeking asylum in Italy.)

Another hurdle for potential candidates for the Council is the human rights ranking given to nations based on their human rights voting record at the UN. The list is maintained by Human Rights Watch (not devoid of its own politicization!) Last year Bahrain voted in favor of the “No Action Motion” against Sudan, a vote seen as opposed to a human rights commitment. “The good news”, according to Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, “is that many of the worst violators -- including Sudan, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, and Nepal -- have not even dared to run for the new council. Now it is up to UN members to exclude other abusive governments so that the council can be a real champion for human rights”.  

Catholic Concerns
The mandate for the new Council includes promotion of rights as well as defense against gross abuses. Promotion is intended to build a “rights-respecting culture”. A lofty hope, but is it realistic?

Sotto voce -- some who are close to the process are not optimistic. Violation of rights is a political tool that has been effective in war and tyranny for all of human history. “We have to try”, admitted one Catholic member of a Czech NGO. “But despots do not fear the United Nations, they uses it as a tool”.

Others ask if, in the “international community” of the UN, torn by vastly differing worldviews, there can be true common ground for “fundamental rights”? Where prostitution and sex slavery account for a significant segment of an economy, will those nations see themselves as abusers? Particularly in nations where “right to life” is a foreign concept? Where the dignity of man as a child of God is not a value, is there hope for common ground? Where political systems and religions see rights as elements of power for the state or the deity, how do you bring a universal agreement? If, informed by secular humanism, the European Union and Canada consider abortion a “right” fundamental to equal treatment of women, does failure to extend such a “right” in a Catholic nation make that nation a “rights abuser”?

Catholic veterans are familiar with the manipulation of the language of rights to achieve a goal beyond those enumerated in the original Declaration of Human Rights. While the original Declaration states that persons have a right to marry and form a family, did anyone in mid-century imagine that it would lead to demands by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) to make homosexual “marriages” an international right? Or that failure to legalize those arrangements would constitute an abuse of international human rights?

Prudent diplomats cannot assume that such demands are mere public relations ploys. A “Human Rights and Sexual Orientation” resolution was introduced at the United Nations by Brazil, endorsed by Canada and European Union members. The resolution specifically names “abuses” committed against persons of homosexual orientation as “human rights violations”. In March of 2006 the IGLHRC staged its international convention to coincide with the United Nations Human Rights Commission annual meeting in Geneva. Though the HRC had an abbreviated session due to its impending abolition, the homosexual lobbying group plans to push for passage of the Brazilian resolution when the new UN Human Right Council convenes in June. Susana Fried, IGLHRC Program Director, described the resolution is “a key building block in the global understanding of human rights”.

These matters cut to the heart of the meaning of “rights”, including religious freedom. Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, based in New York, has already observed that the resolution or passage of “homosexual rights” will “deny religious faiths the freedom to criticize the homosexual lifestyle. There have been several cases that demonstrate this threat to religious freedom. In June 2004, Swedish pastor Ake Green was arrested and sentenced to one month in prison for preaching from his pulpit against homosexuality at his church in Kalmar in 2003. Green was the first pastor prosecuted for a ‘hate crime’ after the Swedish government added ‘sexual orientation’ to its ‘hate crime’ law in 2003”.

At the core, the Catholic challenge is to evangelize the world, if we would see a true understanding of human rights. On March 18, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI addressed diplomats, “Relations between States and within States are correct to the extent that they respect the truth. When, instead, truth is violated, peace is threatened, law is endangered, then, as a logical consequence, forms of injustice are unleashed. These form boundaries that divide countries far more deeply than the frontiers outlined on maps…” That truth is the truth about man as a child of God with rights not subject to states.

The Holy Father told the international dignitaries, “The increased participation of the Holy See in international activities is a precious incentive to ensure that it can continue to give a voice to the conscience of all who make up the international community. It is a sensitive and difficult service …through which the Holy See intends to collaborate in building an international society that is more attentive to the dignity and true needs of the human person”.

Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the Voices editorial board, writes on the United Nations and family issues for Crisis, WorldNet Daily, and other publications. Her commentaries have appeared on radio and television.

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