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November 22, 2010

The UN Human Rights Council: its only saving grace is that it is ineffective, argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge - despairs of the United Nations.

In which country can a woman be sentenced to death for adultery, while the man who murdered her husband - and was convicted of the crime walks free? In which country has that same woman already received 99 lashes, an excruciatingly painful and barbaric punishment, for the same deed? In which country are women discriminated against more generally in child custody, divorce, inheritance and much else? In which country is the evidence of a woman worth exactly half that of a man in court?

Which country is seeking a place on the board of "UN Women", a new body which amalgamates a number of smaller agencies dealing with women's rights and whose brief is to increase sex equality and empower women. It may not be entirely surprising to hear that the answer to the first three questions is Iran, whose treatment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani - the woman under sentence of death for adultery - has been much in the news recently. It may, however, come as a shock to hear that the answer to the fourth question is also: Iran.

The fact that the mullahs seek entry to the agency reflects its determination to ensure that the machinery of the United Nations is not deployed against them. So far, the Iranian bid has been frustrated by clever US and British diplomacy, and the work of non-governmental human rights organisations outraged at Teheran's treatment of women. Sadly, the case is entirely typical of the United Nations, which has had many committee memberships which can best be described as bizarre.

My favourite was Iraq's chairmanship of the non-proliferation committee at a time when that country was not only ruled by the dictator Saddam Hussein but was also pursuing a clandestine nuclear programme.

These situations come about because committees are constituted on a regional basis, not in accordance with compliance with the principles relevant to the work of the body concerned. As a result the "west", both in its geographical and spiritual sense, is hopelessly outnumbered by the "global south" in which dictators, aggressors and human rights abusers are well represented.

A particularly remarkable example here is the Human Rights Council, in which only just over a dozen of the nearly fifty members come from Europe or the west; the African and Asian sections include not only China but Libya and Saudi Arabia, none of them known for their concern for Human Rights. The Council is the product of a recent rebranding, after the old Human Rights Commission had fallen into disrepute for repeated blatant bias.

The fundamental problem is one which goes to the heart of the United Nations itself: the tension between sovereignty and universal values. No state will support a principle which can be used against itself. In the past, the only country which everybody was eventually able to agree to isolate was apartheid South Africa, and this despite the fact that some other states - notably Malaysia - officially discriminated, and discriminate, against elements of their populations on the basis of ethnicity. When all was said and done, however, South Africa deserved to be quarantined, no matter how hypocritical some of its critics might have been.

By contrast, the new pariah - Israel - has been unfairly singled out. Strictures against the Jewish state pass with large majorities, often with the support of many western states, sometimes with the United States as the only vote against. If it is right to censure Israel when it deserves to be, the refusal of the non-European states to reciprocate with criticism of far worse human rights in the Third World, creates a voting record which is absurdly lopsided.

No fewer than thirty of the Human Rights Commission's sixty-one resolutions had been directed against Israel. The point here is not that the Jewish state commits no human rights abuses - it does, as do some other western states - but that it strains credulity to suggest that a tiny Middle Eastern state, which doesn't even have the death penalty, is responsible for about half of the world's human rights abuses. By contrast, some of the states with the worst records - such as Sudan - have been given a free pass because it suits their regional and spiritual allies.

Yet there is no guarantee that this pattern will not be reproduced in the new Human Rights Council. It was only with difficulty that the United States was able to see off Iran's attempt to join in April of this year. There is every likelihood, however, that Teheran will secure a seat in due course once the Ashtiani case has blown over. The only good thing about all this is that the Human Rights Council has no teeth, since it reports directly to the talking shop of the General Assembly, rather than the Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions thus forcing the United States into the embarrassing position of having to use its veto to protect Israel (yet again). It is a sad thing, though, if we have to rely for rationality on the ineffectiveness of a global organisation which was founded with such hopes by men and women of good will who hoped to better the lives of all.

The author thanks Sophie Allweis of the Wilberforce Society and Downing College Cambridge for research carried out in support of this article.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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