UNHRC decay needs urgent treatment

Antonio Guterres, who replaced Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general on January 1 should immediately treat the decay in the UN Human Rights Council.

The whole of the UN is stained by the UNHRC's ineffectual response to the humanitarian disaster in Syria, its inexcusable disregard of systematic Christian persecution, the membership of serial human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia and its trifling support for women's rights.

Founded after WWl on the ashes of the League of Nations, the UN was strongly supported by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, a torchbearer for women's rights and the groundbreaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action," Ban declared recently.

Sadly, these fine words have not led to action for victims of the barbaric civil war in Syria.

While Aleppo burns, the UNHRC fiddles with reports. Dictator Bashar al-Assad's troops have killed more than 100,000 people. Most of the dead are members of the Sunni majority, millions of whom have fled to Turkey, Jordan and Europe. Assad, a member of the Shia-aligned Alawite sect, is with the support of Iran and Russia flagrantly conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing, reportedly clearing the way for Shia Muslims from Iraq.

The UNHRC has paid little attention to the persecution of Christians. On behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, the UNHRC adopted non-binding resolutions to combat "defamation of religions", and in 2011 accepted a resolution against the incitement of violence based on religion. Despite this, the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries has been largely ignored.

Islamic State has used beheadings, abductions, sexual slavery, forced conversions and crucifixions to terrorize Christians. In the past few months: more than 30 Christians were hacked to death by Islamist militants in the Democratic Republic of Congo; churches in Pakistan and Egypt were attacked; a Muslim convert to Christianity was beaten to death in Uganda; Christians caught taking communion wine faced flogging in Iran and 27 Christians were arrested for possessing Bibles in Saudi Arabia.

In October Saudi Arabia was re-elected to the UNHRC, without a heed for Amnesty International's 2015-16 report detailing severe human rights violations by the kingdom. These include the detention and flogging of dissidents, in particular blogger Raif Badawi (sentenced to 1000 lashes), widespread torture, more than 150 executions, discrimination against the Shia minority, indiscriminate killing of civilians in the Yemen civil war and the subjugation of women. Notwithstanding this abysmal record, Saudi Arabia was elected in 2015 to chair a UNHRC panel that chooses officials who report on human rights violations.

Regarding women's rights, the UNHRC has been ineffectual, betraying the many Muslim and minority women and girls who have suffered sexual violence in areas of conflict controlled by Islamists. As victims of rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery, and child marriage, they merit more than a spineless body.

Consisting of 47 member states, the UNHRC is supposed to be the foremost global platform for safeguarding and advancing human rights. However, the body is highly politicized, with many members acting in sovereign interests. Furthermore, member states China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are themselves human rights violators.

Such travesties led to the demise of the UN Commission on Human Rights and its replacement by the UNHRC 10 years ago. Reforms resulted in more meetings and the establishment of the Universal Periodic Review to regularly evaluate all UN member states.

Voting in the UNHRC is symptomatic of the UN as a whole. Due to equal votes for all 193 member states, whatever their size, the relatively few democracies are usually outvoted. The General Assembly is dominated by two politicized blocs: the Non-Aligned Movement and within the NAM, the 57-member OIC, headquartered in Saudi Arabia. These groups contain authoritarian and sexist states.

Moreover, many Muslim states reject the UDHR in favour of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights, which is based on sharia. They are therefore at odds with the universal principles fundamental to the UN and UNHRC, and their membership of these organisations would seem hypocritical, if not absurd.

In the past 70 years, the US has contributed more than half a trillion dollars to cover the immense growth and maintenance of the UN, and many developments in health and education have been achieved. However, the HRC has proved largely ineffective in dealing with major human rights violations.

Guterres will have to treat the decay in the UNHRC to avoid a terminal illness.

A version of this article was originally featured in The Australian.

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