The UN Human Rights Agenda: A Strategy of Diversion

by | Dec 26, 2002 | POLITICS

[Originally this article was supposed to be published in The New York Times. Read what the author went through once the Times “accepted” it.–CM]Every year over 100,000 people write letters about human rights violations which begin “Dear Mr. UN Secretary General” and “Dear UN High Commissioner for Human Rights”. Some of these letters complain about […]

[Originally this article was supposed to be published in The New York Times. Read what the author went through once the Times “accepted” it.–CM]

Every year over 100,000 people write letters about human rights violations which begin “Dear Mr. UN Secretary General” and “Dear UN High Commissioner for Human Rights”. Some of these letters complain about inflation. Some are part of mass email campaigns generated in reality from only a few sites. But many describe sad tales of human rights abuse at the hands of government, or officially-sanctioned, thugs. What happens to these cries from all over the world for help?

In theory, the end of the Holocaust began a new era in international response to human rights concerns. For the next fifty years the international community proliferated standards, treaties, agreements and resolutions. Remedies, however, were another matter.

The UN Human Rights Commission ended its annual session at the end of April. It is the central global intergovernmental human rights body in existence. It responded to those 100,000 plus messages by adopting resolutions on human rights conditions with respect to eleven of the 189 UN Member States.

UN intergovernmental human rights machinery is not keen on specifics. Its members include some of the most notorious human rights violators in the world today: China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Those countries prefer devoting UN funds, (22% of which are from the United States), to criticizing Israel – lest attention wander too close to home.

The strategy of diversion has been wildly successful. Fifteen percent of Commission time and thirty percent of country-specific resolutions over thirty years are directed at this one state.

The problem is the 100,000 messages keep coming. In view of the intergovernmental response, many human rights advocates press legal avenues of redress. Over a thirty-five year time span human rights “treaty bodies” have been created to respond to individual complaints. While their decisions are almost never enforceable in domestic courts, they offer individualized attention to human rights grievances.

There is, however, one major challenge to the treaty system’s potential success. There are almost no cases. Hardly any of the 100,000 messages sent to the UN make it into the UN’s legal track. There are no agreed-upon, transparent guidelines about directing the traffic to the legal system, and Dear Madam High Commissioner doesn’t get there on its own. This is aside from the significant problem of resources and advice necessary to transform those letters into viable cases related to legal rights.

As for the rest of the global village, ignorance is the rule. The UN “petition system”, as it is called, is the best kept secret in the UN. One and a half billion people are permitted by their states to complain about individual violations of human rights ranging from the right to vote, freedom of expression and of religion, to freedom from discrimination on any ground. But there are less than 100 cases registered by the UN human rights legal system annually.

There has never been a case from places like Chad or Somalia, and only one or two from states like Algeria and Angola.

In December 2000 a new UN human rights complaint system came into force giving women the right to complain of a broad spectrum of violations of women’s rights, provided their country has ratified the new treaty. Thirty-six countries have done so. And not a single complaint has yet been registered. It might be expected that the major human rights non-governmental organizations would bear considerable responsibility to inform victims of their rights and to facilitate complaints. But they are often occupied in much the same way as the intergovernmental system, concentrating on a narrow-range of states which are politically expedient. Human Rights Watch* rushed out a report on Jenin and a critique of Israel, while a report on suicide-bombers operating for the past 20 months is still coming. Selectivity, as the UN calls it, is not just a governmental problem. The shortfalls of the UN system, lead many to pin their hopes on regional human rights systems: the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. But one regional group remains outside the target range. The Asian group (including China and the bulk of Muslim states) has no regional human rights system. These states strenuously avoid international human rights scrutiny and are largely successful in their efforts. No resolution has ever been passed at the UN Human Rights Commission concerning China or Syria, for example. At the just-completed Commission session, the Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights violations in Iran was deleted after six years of denying him entry into the country. The importance of universal, in addition to regional, standards has not been eclipsed.

Narrowing the gap between international right and remedy means confronting not only the double-standards advocated by states, but the slackening of standards advocated by NGOs. Their buzz word is listening to the “voices of the victims”. This was the tack of Amnesty International at the Durban World Conference Against Racism. The glitch is that voices say all kinds of things. Like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who recently said in Boston: “People are scared in this country [the US] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? … Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin … were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.” Human rights protection is not about the self-selection of the most extreme, the loudest, or best-funded of the mob. It is about universal standards and remedying legitimate claims.

The Secretary-General is now searching for a new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.** That individual’s chance to make a positive impact on the international protection of human rights will depend on his or her (a) preparedness to withstand the highly selective pressure of states, (b) willingness to confront the UN’s internal resistance to professionalism and transparency, and (c) ability to know the difference between a voice and a victim. Only universally applied human rights legal standards can light the way.

First published in June 2002 in “JUSTICE“, a quarterly mailed to thousands of lawyers and jurists throughout the world and which examines a variety of relevant issues and current topics, published by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ).

CM Notes:
* “Human Rights Watch” has a mixed view of rights where they often end up supporting violations of individual rights.
** The chairmanship for the term beginning in March 2003 belongs to Africa, whose nations are set to nominate Libya. Ruled by the notorious dictator Muammar Qadhafi, Libya!!!

Anne Bayefsky is a Professor at York University in Toronto, Canada.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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