The limits of the UN’s reforms of its human rights body

The United Nations general assembly has overwhelmingly approved a new Human Rights Council to replace the "widely discredited" Human Rights Commission; 170 of its 191 members voted in favour, four voting against and three abstaining. The vote followed a proposal for reform that was made by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, who is keen to make his dismal term seem better before he bows out at the end of this year. Not surprisingly, Annan –” who throughout his term has failed to defy the US’s policy of using the UN to rubber-stamp its imperial programmes –” has limited his reforms to internal management and to the human rights machinery. This clearly falls short of pushing the real reforms that might lead to removal of the major powers’ grip on the UN as a whole. It is, after all, these governments that are responsible for the more serious violations of human rights, including war crimes, although attention is normally focused on violations by such countries as Sudan, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran and Myanmar (what used to be called Burma).

But although the new human-rights body is not very different from the outgoing commission, and will not be able to prevent western countries from exploiting it, the US, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau voted against the resolution that created it, on the grounds that it is not effective enough and will not prevent future violations or block the membership of countries such as Sudan and Iran. Under the old system, countries often got onto the commission by means of backroom deals within the UN’s regional groupings. Under the approved reform, there can be regional slates of candidates, but each will have to win approval from at least 96 countries: an absolute majority of the UN membership, in other words. The proposed council will also sit for a larger part of each year than the commission, to enable it to carry out a "universal periodic review" of every country.

The "universal review" is almost certainly not going to include Israel and the US, although the two are among the worst violators of human rights and, indeed, commit war crimes on a large scale. In fact, the UN’s deliberations of the reforms coincided with worldwide exposure of the torture of detainees by the US at its detention-centres, such as the one at Guantanamo Bay, and of mass murder committed during its military operations, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar crimes by Israel against the Palestinians were also widely publicised during the UN’s deliberations. But these very serious issues were not raised, let alone discussed; instead John Bolton, the US delegate, railed against small countries as serious violators that should not be admitted as members of the council.

Bolton also dismissed out of hand calls on Washington by major human-rights organisations and a number of US allies in the UN to drop its opposition to the reform on the grounds that the new council is a major improvement on the old commission, as "serious violators" will not be admitted as members. Bolton disagreed, saying that the resolution approving the deal should have made admission of members subject to approval by a two-thirds majority, as recommended by Annan’s proposal, instead of the absolute majority condition the General Assembly’s resolution sets down. "The higher hurdle for membership would have made it harder for countries that are not demonstrably committed to human rights to win seats on the council," he said. "It would have helped to prevent the election of countries that only seek to undermine the body from within."

Bolton continued to lecture the other delegates on why it was morally wrong to accept the new reforms. To see the full hypocrisy of his declarations it is useful to set out further quotations. "We must not let the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world think that UN member-states were willing to settle for ‘good enough’," he said. "We must not let history remember us as the architects of a council that was a ‘compromise’ and merely ‘the best that we could do’ rather than one that ensured doing ‘all we could do’ to promote human rights." But it soon became clear that Washington did not think the council detrimental to its interests and that it was willing to back it. Bolton confirmed that the US would "work cooperatively" to strengthen the council, and looked forward to reviewing its effectiveness in addressing cases of human-rights abuses such as Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Myanmar (previously Burma).

The resolution calls for the election of new council members on May 9, and for a first meeting of the council on June 19. The commission will be abolished on June 16. While the demise of the commission cannot be regretted, the introduction of the council is no cause for celebration. This may explain why Iran, Belarus and Venezuela abstained from the vote on the resolution. It would certainly be difficult for an Islamic government to vote with the US and Israel against a proposal for human-rights reform that is an improvement on the current situation, even if it happens to be mostly tinkering. Similarly it is difficult for an Islamic country –” or indeed, any state supporting human rights –” to pretend that the resolution is a significant advance.

In fact the new resolution is no threat to the interests of the US and Israel and, according to analysts, Washington regards it as good that it should be approved. By the US’s opposing it, they argued, UN members would feel compelled to vote for it in reaction, while the US would benefit from posing as an advocate of greater reforms. The council, for instance, will not act to end (and probably not even to criticise) Washington’s war on Islam and Muslims (thinly disguised as a war on terrorism), nor its war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor will it oppose or censure Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its war crimes against Palestinians.

But the blame for this situation really lies at the door of Muslim governments, which are too divided to agree on a common programme to protect themselves and the rest of the world against the imperial designs and economic warfare of the West.