What's wrong with U.N.'s human rights council
October 31st, 2013
08:58 AM ET

What's wrong with U.N.'s human rights council

By Hillel Neuer, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Hillel Neuer, an international lawyer, is the executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO. The views expressed are his own.

Seven years after the United Nations promised to completely revamp its troubled human rights body, the upcoming election of notorious human rights violators underscores how the world’s most needy victims continue to be let down.

On November 12, the U.N. General Assembly, operating via back-room deals and political vote-trading, is almost certain to return China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to the 47-nation Human Rights Council, even though these regimes systematically violate virtually every article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Other non-democracies expected to win coveted seats include Algeria, Jordan, and Vietnam. While none of the United Nations’ 193 member states are blemish free, disregard for human rights are intrinsic to the very structure of the aforementioned governments.

With this in mind, a coalition of human rights groups led by U.N. Watch and the Human Rights Foundation will next week hear from some of the world’s most courageous champions of human rights – blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, Cuban dissident Rosa Maria Payá, Russian journalist Masha Gessen and Gulf Institute director Ali Al-Ahmed – who will urge the United States and EU to take action.

More from GPS: Freedom under assault across globe

Also next week, the assembled rights groups will issue a detailed report evaluating all of the candidates, based on their domestic record as well as on how they are likely to use their council votes. It will make for some sobering reading, highlighting recent low points such as the failure of all of the above mentioned candidates to support a draft resolution in the General Assembly documenting the shocking human rights abuses by the Islamic Republic of Iran against women, religious minorities, and political dissidents.

Ironically, it was the abusers club phenomenon that prompted the creation of the Council, after former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan grew exasperated with its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, which had experienced a staggering decline in credibility – in 1946, the commission’s founding chair was Eleanor Roosevelt; in 2003, the commission elected as chair the Libyan regime of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

This last move was the final straw, and forced Annan to acknowledge openly that countries had sought membership in the U.N.’s highest human rights body not to strengthen human rights, but “to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.”

The commission, Annan said, was undermined by the “politicization of its sessions” and the “selectivity of its work.” It suffered from “declining professionalism” and a “credibility deficit,” all of which “cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”

More from CNN: Rights groups challenge U.S.

Annan criticized its obsession with condemning Israel and called for a new council made up of countries with a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards, one that would respond to severe abuses, including through urgent sessions. Its work would be impartial and non-selective.

So, seven years later, has the new council redressed the shortcomings of its predecessor?

For the Obama administration, which joined the council in 2009, the answer could not be more clear. At the conclusion of each session, the State Department immediately issues a set of talking points entitled “Key U.S. Outcomes,” describing the council as being “at the forefront of international efforts to promote and protect human rights,” a “more effective and credible multilateral forum.”

To be sure, thanks largely to U.S. diligence there has been positive action. Though Washington was shamefully silent when Gadhafi was elected to the new Council in 2010, one year later, during the war in Libya, they helped suspend his membership. And in the past few years, new investigations were launched into the situations in Iran, Syria, and North Korea. Administration officials, eager to justify their membership to a skeptical Congress, say all of this shows progress.

In reality, however, the exceptions prove the rule: the vast majority of the world’s worst abusers continue to get a free pass. The fact is that even the old commission killed off by Annan had taken on some abusers. For example, in 2001 – the same year Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth compared the U.N. rights body to “a police force run in large part by suspected murderers and rapists” – resolutions were passed on several countries, including Russia and Cuba.

Yet today, Moscow and Havana are untouchable, while no Council member even tries tabling resolutions to help human rights victims in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela or Zimbabwe. These and other fellow perpetrators enjoy immunity, and impunity.

Defenders of the council point to its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism as a saving grace. That every country gets reviewed, even if only for one day every four years, is certainly a positive development. In practice, however, most of the reviews amount to orchestrated mutual praise. Last week, for example, China used the UPR to praise Saudi Arabia – where 53 Ethiopian Christians were arrested this year for praying in a private home – for its “religious tolerance.” The next day, Saudi Arabia praised China – which has trampled the people of Tibet – for “progress” in “ethnic minority regions, at the political, cultural and educational levels.”

When the U.S. joined in 2009, then-Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer told the Council that it had to aspire toward “truth.” It is now time for the U.S. and other U.N. stakeholders to tell the truth.

Supporters of a credible and effective Human Rights Council – be they member states, U.N. officials, or human rights NGOs – must act now to prevent the council from meeting the same fate as its discredited and now-defunct predecessor. They need to honestly address the council’s strengths and weaknesses; call out abusive regimes by submitting resolutions even if they will be defeated; and expose and confront council appointees who bring the good name of the United Nations into disrepute.

The election next month of so many repressive regimes will only serve to escalate the council’s credibility crisis, while complacency will only lead it down the same ignominious path as the old commission. Only if we act now, with conviction and alacrity, will the world’s highest human rights body have any chance of improving on the fortunes of its predecessor – and, more importantly, helping those who for too long have had their voices stifled.


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soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    After what we're doing to the political prisoners being held at Gitmo, just who are we to criticize the human rights records of other countries? Remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian who helped many people escape the misery of dying a slow and agonizing death? Furthermore, one can be prosecuted just for going to Cuba for their vacation unless one is Cuban American. Like Jesus once said, let him who has never sinned cast the first stone!

    October 31, 2013 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • saywhat

      UN Rights Council has been and would remain selective. getting its cue from major powers. Human Rights violations are highlighted and bemoaned mostly where we want them pinned.

      November 1, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • stern

      i lost you at "political prisoners being held at Gitmo" HAHAHHAHAHA !
      Kevorkian was an individual who didn't follow the law.

      November 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  2. Tina L. Moore - Airwnd0041

    Being Human has human instincts already. The word {establish) such is the unknown if one has too go through what humans already know.

    Example: Drive a Vehicle with no license plate!

    October 31, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • Ethiopia Hagere

      Dear Jason Miks of CNN

      It is sad to see that the U.S and other U.N stakeholders failed again to tell the truth to help the credibility of Human Rights Council. I am also puzzled and thought what's wrong with U.N's human rights council for not responding to the sufferings of Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, what a surprise. One of the nations who was granted a seat in the council, Saudi Arabia is committing a gross human right violations that is incomprehensible at this DNA age and U.N's human right council has nothing to say so far. This is is despite the fact that Ethiopians who reside all over the world ( except those who live in their home land) are screaming for help. The Ethiopians who live in their homeland attempted to raise their voice but prevented by the Ethiopian regime, an answer as to why Ethiopians fled their country and take a chance to make it in the worst land called Saudi Arabia. This kind of reaction is expected and has become norm from the current regime in Ethiopia, who is the reason these people went to Saudi in the first place, and benefited from their sufferings. Now that you have revealed the underlying cause of what is wrong with the U.N's human rights council, please take a look at one example of how that wrong is manifesting it self. Look into the day light secret of the sufferings of Ethiopians under the barbaric country of Saudi Arabia. It is the worst form of legalized modern day slavery. The exploitative sponsorship (kafala) system in Saudi is nothing but modern day slavery. All who are participating in this must be brought to justice including the tugs in Ethiopia but until that time comes must be exposed for the sake of humanity. In addition to the killings that the stone age barbaric regime and society of Saudi are carrying out, we hope the news organization like CNN will shade light on this modern day slavery for what it is. The Ethiopians being tortured and killed happen to be blacks,christians and have no government to protect them. There is racism, anti christianity and slavery going on. Your piece on on what is wrong with U.N's human right council is an interesting one, the silence of this organization on gross human right violation is even more shocking. Isn't it high time that a news organization like yours shades light at the racism, anti-christianity, human trafficking and modern day slavery that is currently going on in Saudi Arabia? You owe it to humanity.

      November 28, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  3. Linda Kay

    "We" are not writing this article. The NGO head of UN Watch is writing this and he happens to be Canadian. He does not speak for the USA in his writings, nor does he absolve the US of its human rights failings.

    October 31, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  4. rightospeak

    It is a joke ,the whole UN , just like the League of Nations before them. When millions in the Ukraine were dying of starvation in 1930s because Stalin needed to sell wheat to arm himself for the world's conquest – the "journalis' were silent. They only serve the most powerful while the majority of people get the shaft-it is unfortunately that simple.
    The Hutu massacre is the best example – all a big farce. The Tutsi were trained in the US.It was all about neocolonialism , but since the media is owned by the oligarchs there was no investigative journalism. Our media still have no clue what happened . One needs to read in other languages to find the truth.

    October 31, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Then again rightospeak, just where was the UN in Dec. 1972 when Pres. Nixon launched those horrendous bombing raids on Hanoi, North Vietnam, using those godless B-52 bombers? And even more recently, where was the UN when two American pilots bombed the Amriya air raid shelter in Baghdad, Iraq on Feb. 13, 1991, killing well over 414 innocent civilians? If these are not war crimes, just what is?

      October 31, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Reply
      • Trevor

        War Crimes to have validity have to have not just "casulities" but the other piece is "intent"...because if, by your logic only casulities "count", then you need with a straight face to indict EVERY leader of EVERY nation-state that has been involved in EVERY war EVER fought. Good that you're not in-charge of determining what a war crime is and is not.

        Hey...atleast you actually came up with a statement this time that hasn't been repeated by yourself atleast a dozen times...

        November 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  5. rightospeak

    Oh , oh – my reply to Joseph mentioned Federal Reserve and it vanished without a trace. Maybe NSA can find it .The Thought Police is on the job today.
    Yes , Joseph, those are war crimes.

    October 31, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  6. bobcat2u

    What's Wrong With UN's Human Rights Council ?

    Hmmm. Let me think about this for a moment.
    It's pretty obvious that each and every member of the UN itself has skeletons in their closets. How can any nation honestly feel comfortable about pointing their fingers at other countries when their own countrymen are committing the same abuses.
    This is the reason the UN is such a worthless organization. They sit around passing condemning resolutions, Don't you know that really throws fear into those on the receiving end.

    October 31, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  7. rightospeak

    No more comments today-censors ( Thought Police) are on the job at CNN.

    October 31, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  8. Steve York

    The U.S. Should get out of the U.N. because it's a worthless organization when it doesn't care that Christians are being persacuted everywhere! The Hq for the U.N. should be in Paris, France!

    October 31, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  9. 100 % ETHIO

    Jewish (Swej) messed-up all the World healthy livings.

    It is just a matter of time, until US awake from deep sleep.
    What we get from the SWEJ is much fractions than what we give to them.

    October 31, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Reply
    • bimaboard

      @ 100%ETHIO: Yes, because obviously the Jews are running Libya, Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba. Why are you obsessed with blaming everything on less that half of one percent of the world's population?

      October 31, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  10. ✠RZ✠

    Perhaps they should concern themselves more with human wrongs.

    November 1, 2013 at 7:10 am | Reply
    • rightospeak

      Right on , RZ. They are more concerned with huge profits for a few and control.

      November 1, 2013 at 9:18 am | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    Every member state in the Human Rights Council is subjected to public scrutiny and prosecution, if human rights abuses are disclosed. Unfortunately most of the countries in these international organisations preach water and drink wine. It's nothing new!

    November 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  12. krehator

    What is wrong with the Useless Nations, period?

    November 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  13. saywhat

    further comments blocked as i expected.

    November 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • rightospeak

      Most of our media is becoming garbage, saywhat, so they are desperate to keep the propaganda going. To get real news one needs to go to the Internet not run by the monopolists.

      November 1, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  14. alvena

    At what point do we admit these organisations are exactly what they are, a fake!
    humans will only be free when they are free, anything standing in for them has failed miserably.
    when we have an organised freedom group with an army, we may have a chance.
    the U.N is uniformed and sent out to keep peace for the criminal activities of this boys club, its plain, we have to recapture our souls with individual protections, and it is not going to happen with the corruption of elitists, ever!
    time to face reality..its a start..reset button..

    November 1, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Alvena- I would think the best point to start was about 60 years ago. The next best point would be now.

      November 2, 2013 at 8:02 am | Reply
  15. saywhat

    @rightospeak.Agree.

    November 2, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  16. saywhat

    UN is ruled by those who rule the Security Council with veto power. Its charter is applicable where they direct it.

    November 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
  17. US Sri Lankan

    I fail to understand the double standard applied by UN Human Rights representatives to Sri Lanka for alleged hum,an rights violations at the end of the civil war. Where were these UN representatives when Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a terrorist organisation was killing thousands including women, children & even heads of governments (Ranjiv Gandhi of India). In war & currently going on world over the war on terrorist we justify killing civilians as "collateral damage". But many of the world power are ready to condemn a third world country end a three decade old war. It is said people in glass houses should not be throwing stones.

    November 3, 2013 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  18. Rick McDaniel

    The better question.......is what's wrong with the U.N.?

    Answer........totally ineffective in almost everything they do.

    November 4, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  19. US Sri Lankan

    But the major problem is when U.N. dolls out threats of sanctions or better follow-up on those threats on third world countries. We agree U.N. is totally ineffective but they have the power will not hesitate to use to inflict suffering on these third world or developing countries. Total abuse of power.

    November 4, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  20. Dan

    The UH HRW needs to either be gotten rid of or completely revamp. They have been infiltrated with Muslim nations that have seen it as a platform for attacking Israel which they have done with reckless abandon. It is beyond ridiculous that this dysfunctional hate mongering group flies under the banner of human rights when that is the last thing they are interested in. The UN owes Israel an apology and they should over turn all of the sanctions these thugs passed.

    November 5, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  21. RITCHIE MacINNIS

    All the countries with all the people have the "Old Sin Nature". The UN has a mandate to do what is right. To have other countries encourage and help the people and countries that out and out FAIL. Mr. H. Neuer does a good job of exposing these truths. Thank You Sir.

    Ritchie MacInnis

    November 18, 2013 at 6:14 am | Reply
  22. Brett Champion

    So long as the UN has a human rights council it's going to be loaded with most of the world's worst right abusers because they have a strong incentive to get on the council so as to prevent it from turning a spotlight on their activities. Better to do away with that at the UN and just let NGOs track and report on the issue.

    November 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  23. bi11yj0e

    IIt happened, China granted seat on UN's human rights council. Campaigners express concern at China's human rights record as it gains seat along with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Cuba. Story by Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing
    theguardian.com, Thursday 14 November 2013. WHAT's WRONG, NOTHING that's how the UN works. There are 47 seats to be filled. China has by far the worst record on human rights. Having a seat on the council is not dominating the UN policy. The UN message on human rights will most likely be unchanged. Just words without much action. Nothing new here, move along.

    November 26, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply

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