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April 30, 2005

UN Members, Reform Thyselves
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

An addendum to my last posting on the topic of UN reform.   This week Zimbabwe was elected to a three year term on the UN's Human Rights Commission.  For reasons covered in our discussions of the Zimbabwe election, the outrage is obvious.  Sure enough the U.S. and Europe are once again up-in-arms

Why did it happen?  Because each regional group nominates its own candidates for membership to the Commission, and within the African group, it was Zimbabwe's "turn."  The group has been loath to allow considerations like fitness for service to enter into the calculus, preferring a strict rotation that allows even the most egregious rights violators to sit in judgment of others.  The situation illustrates why Annan has called for the disbanding of the Commission and its replacement by a Human Rights Council that would be elected in a different way.

But here's the problem: whether you call it a Commission or a Council, if the membership does not recognize the need to populate a body charged with upholding human rights with countries that themselves adhere to those principles, the forum will never regain its credibility.   To his credit, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, Mark Lagon, understands this and is trying to figure out what a more workable system of selection would look like.

Inevitably there will be line-drawing exercises.  China has been on the Commission on Human Rights uninterrupted since 1982.  Given their status as a permanent member of the Security Council and their influence in their region and beyond, its hard to imagine they won't be part of a new Council.  Cuba has been a member of the Commission on Human Rights since 1989.   In that case, a broader and more flexible system for selecting members could well freeze the Cubans out.  For a historical view of the membership, see here

But no system of voting, no matter how artfully rigged, will put the right countries on a human rights body unless the Member States who do the voting make a genuine attempt to avoid putting violating foxes in charge of the human rights hen house.

This ties into a broader point about UN reform.  Most of the proposals under debate deal with new institutions and systems:  the Human Rights Council, Peacebuilding Commission, augmented oversight office.  But the most serious problems at the UN stem from the membership:  their obstructionism, indifference, double-standards and petty-politicking.  Unless the UN's member states are prepared to reexamine their own role in paralyzing and undercutting the organization, a reform package may be nothing more than old wine (or whine) in new bottles.

Kofi Annan can't make this happen.  Even if he weren't beleaguered, the member states call the shots for the UN Secretariat and not the other way around.  Ordinarily the U.S.,  as the biggest turtle in the bay, should take the lead. 

The problem is that while we fixate on Zimbabwe on the Commission on Human Rights and French and Russian companies' alleged skimming of the oil for food program, the rest of the membership is instead fixated on how we have manipulated the system. 

Colin Powell's mortifying powerpoint presentation to the UN Security Council purporting to prove Iraqi WMD is exhibit A (the stuff is all still on the State Department website, interestingly), but it doesn't stop there.  Going back to the issue of human rights, just last week the U.S. pressed for the ouster of a distinguished UN human rights rapporteur responsible for Afghanistan, Professor Cherif Bassiouni of DePaul University literally one day after he released a report detailing how Americans running prisons in Afghanistan had circumvented the law "by engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions and committing abusive practices, including torture."  Bassiouni documented this despite being denied access to U.S. military prisons in country.  The State Department used the excuse that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is so good it no longer needs to be monitored.  The New York Times finally reported on this this morning, though the incident happened a week ago.

In remarks made on April 19, 2005 Deputy Assistant Secretary Lagon spoke of the need for measures that go "Beyond institutional fixes, in the Commission or a Council, democracies must seize the initiative to save the UN human rights apparatus from utter disrepute."  But by ousting Bassiouni, the U.S. is engaging in precisely the type of behavior that it purports to decry:  shenanigans that undermine the credibility of UN human rights mechanisms.  It is also undercutting its own ability to call on other Member States to take the high ground, putting human rights principles above regional loyalties or narrowly-defined self-interest. 

True reform at the UN will be reform not just of the world body's commissions, committees and councils, but also of its Member States, whose behavior is at the root of the problems that bedevil the organization.  The U.S. should lead this process, but cannot do so unless other see that it is willing to look in the mirror first.


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I want to sound a cautionary note on the SG's proposal to remake the Human Rights Commission to ensure that notorious violators are no longer members. There's an intuitive appeal to this suggestion: the current system gives thugs like Robert Mugabe a platform to sit in judgment of others. If we see the Commission as a body of experts whose job is to promote and enforce international standards, then restricting membership makes alot of sense.

But the world that human rights norms address is not limited to good guy countries. The hard work of public shaming, diplomatic armtwisting, sanctions and even humanitarian intervention will all involve the nasty human rights violators. This is an old question in the UN -- universality of membership or limitation according to a political litmus test. The latter governed UN membership for a while in the 1950s, as the US and USSR opposed each others' allies as candidates, notwithstanding a ruling by the ICJ that considerations beyond those set out in the Charter were illegitimate. But we got beyond that, and it seemed the view prevailed that it's better to have everyone inside the organization where they can be criticized and cajoled than outside so we can feel righteous about belonging to an elite club. There were notable exceptions, of course: the GA rejecting South Africa's credentials in the 70s and Serbia's effective explusion in the early 90s.

But which approach is best for the HR Commission? In part the answer may depend on the details of other reforms. If the High Commissioner gets a beefed up mandate, and so can investigate countries that might not be investigated by a Commission that includes some violators, then it might be worth maintaining current membership requirements. On the other hand, if the Commission remains one of the few places where UN condemnation of Zimbabwe, North Korea and Sudan can take place, then reforms ensuring that can happen become more justifiable.

When I hear arguments for eliminating bad guys from the Commission I often think of a UN body on disarmament that is limited to states without armies. It would surely occupy the moral high ground but would it really address the problem?

Even the founding fathers of the US who crafted the Constitution and that famous radical of his day, Thomas Jefferson may have been guilty of egregious human rights abuses. Starting with slavery. Even when considering the fact that those documents they crafted spelled the beginning of the end of slavery and similar institutions in the United States, it stil constitutes a measure of glaring hypocrisy.

So, then, who do you select to judge human rights abuses? I suspect that the answer lies not in selecting countries for committees, rather individual jurists to sit in judgement on an International bench similar to the Hague, etc. Countries often have long histories with skeleton's in their closets. Individuals with the right sort of resume's and credentials can be chosen who do not.

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