Tyrants Shouldn't Dictate Human Rights Policy

The UN's current roundtable for human rights is a tool to whitewash, cover up, and direct attention away from the behavior of its worst member governments.
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By Thor Halvorssen and Alexander Gladstein

NEW YORK, NY -- The United Nations Human Rights Council concluded its March 26 meeting by adopting 28 resolutions. Convening in Geneva, the Council is the U.N.'s foremost human rights authority. It was created after the U.N.'s 53-member Human Rights Commission did such an abysmal job that in December of 2004 then Secretary General Kofi Annan called for the creation of a new human rights body. The Council currently has 47 members elected on the basis of "geographical distribution" by simple majority vote of the U.N.'s general assembly. Members have to commit to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights." Annan hailed the new body as a step forward: "I don't think anyone can claim this is old wine in a new bottle," he said after its creation.

The Council's recent work product speaks volumes. Eight of the 28 resolutions passed were criticisms directed at specific governments -- one for North Korea, one for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one for Burma, one for Guinea, and four for Israel. Human rights violations committed by Israel and North Korea were deemed especially "grave".

The Council views the Israeli government's actions as its most urgent human rights concern -- more dire than, for example, the assassination of human rights defenders in Russia; the continuing genocide in Sudan; the 8 million forced-laborers in China's Laogai prisons; the 200 political prisoners in Cuba; the assault on independent media in Venezuela; the persecution of gays in Uganda. Missing from the Council's resolutions are the cruel dictatorships in Vietnam, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea, and the brutality of Iran's government against its own people.

Undoubtedly there are human rights violations by Israel -- wherever youths are given weapons and a long conflict ensues there will be abuses of power and this needs close scrutiny. But the obsession of the U.N. body with Israel shows a complete double standard. Israel has a robust working democracy, a system of government that features an independent judiciary which tries its own war criminals, and a free press which documents its own government's abuses. The countries mentioned above do not have any of these.

Why did the U.N. not find it important to speak out on behalf of the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Chechens, Cubans, Darfuris, Dalits, or dozens of other oppressed groups? Because the U.N. Human Rights Council includes a dozen dictatorships, counting China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia as well as a catalog of governments with dreadful human rights records such as Angola, Bahrain, Bolivia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Nicaragua, and Pakistan.

The world's current roundtable for human rights is a tool to whitewash, cover up, and direct attention away from the behavior of its worst member governments. The only working governmental alternative is a body -- in the U.N. or outside it -- composed solely of democratic, open societies applying consistent standards and willing to work transparently to expose and condemn governments that abuse rights. That is why we are convening the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. It's time Human Rights became an issue we all take seriously, and put on the forefront of the global political agenda.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Alexander Gladstein is its vice president of strategy. The Oslo Freedom Forum will convene April 26th - 29th in Norway.

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