The UN Human Rights Council begins its annual session in Geneva today by once again disgracing itself by appointing the West African nation of Mauritania as its Vice-President for the next 12 months. The UNHRC, to remind readers, is the organization that in the past has cozied up to the Gadhafi and Assad regimes in Libya and Syria; that in 2009 praised Sri Lanka's human rights record shortly after that country's military had killed more than 40,000 Tamil civilians; and that still exhibits at the entrance to its [meeting] chamber, two pieces of art, one donated by Egypt's Mubarak regime, the other with a plaque that reads "A statue of Nemesis, Goddess of justice, donated by the Syrian government."
It also, last December, appointed Alfred De Zayas as one of its leading advisors, despite the fact that his books on World War II portray Germans as victims and the Allies as perpetrators of "genocide." De Zayas, while not denying the Holocaust himself, has nonetheless become a hero to many Holocaust deniers, and his sayings are featured on many of their websites. He has called for Israel to be expelled from the UN, while he has defended the ruthless Iranian regime.
And now Mauritania has been chosen by the UNHRC to help preside over worldwide human rights for the next year. Mauritania -- and readers would be forgiven for not knowing this, given the way the international media and many self-appointed human rights groups all but ignore it -- is a country that allows 20 percent of its citizens, about 800,000 people, some as young as ten, to live as slaves.
An estimated 27 million people worldwide still live in conditions of forced bondage, and every year at least 700,000 people are trafficked across borders and into slavery, according to figures compiled by the US state department, the International Organization for Migration, and other reliable sources.
But nowhere is slavery still so systematically practiced as in Mauritania, an Islamic republic whose imams often use their interpretations of Sharia law to justify forcing the darker-skinned black African "Haratine" minority to serve as slaves to the Arabic Moor population.
"The situation is every bit as bad as it was in Apartheid South Africa, and in many ways it is worse," Abidine Merzough, the European coordinator for the anti-slavery NGO "Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania," told the fifth annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, last Tuesday.
"Officially, the Mauritanian authorities have abolished slavery on five separate occasions, but in reality it exists exactly as before, backed up by imams and other clergy who write laws and issue fatwas justifying slavery," said Merzough, who was born to slaves in Mauritania but is a rare example of someone who managed to escape and now lives in Germany.
"Slaves are their masters' property, often from birth. Women slaves are allowed to be sexually abused whenever their masters want. The masters can buy or sell slaves or loan out parts of their bodies for use -- arms, legs, vaginas, mouths. The slaves must obey. This is Islamic law as it exists in Mauritania today," Merzough told the Geneva Summit, which (to their credit) was this year attended by a small number of UNHRC ambassadors from democratic countries (including Canada).
Last year I attended both the Geneva Summit and the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council, which meets just a mile up the road in Geneva. The contrast could hardly be greater. I watched the UN ambassadors arrive in chauffeur driven Mercedes, and then congratulate themselves while ignoring human rights abuses throughout the world. The Geneva summit, by comparison, is put together on a very modest budget by 20 NGOs, headed by UN Watch, an organization that does such good work for human rights issues that the UNHRC should hang its head in shame.
At this year's Geneva Summit, I moderated a panel which included Mukhtar Mai, an extraordinarily brave woman who was gang raped on the order of a tribal court in Pakistan after it was alleged (wrongly) that her brother had acted immodestly. And after the rape, instead of committing suicide (which is common after such experiences in Pakistan) she has fought a ten-year legal battle in an effort to bring the perpetrators to justice. Other speakers at this year's Geneva summit included dissidents, torture survivors and witnesses from Congo, Iran, Tibet, Syria, North Korea and elsewhere - as well as Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of the jailed lead singer of the Russian band Pussy Riot.
When Britain's foreign secretary William Hague and other dignitaries assemble in Geneva to open the annual session of the UNHRC today, they might want to ask why these dissidents were not invited to address them. And they might want to ask why Mauritania, instead of being held to account, has been appointed the organization's vice-chair.