Where does the global human rights movement stand in the seventh year of the 21st century? If the first year of the United Nations Human Rights Council is any indication, it's grown sick and cynical -- partly because of the fecklessness and flexible morality of some of the very governments and groups that claim to be most committed to democratic values.
At a session in Geneva last week, the council -- established a year ago in an attempt to reform the U.N. Human Rights Commission -- listened to reports by special envoys appointed by its predecessor condemning the governments of Cuba and Belarus. It then abolished the jobs of both "rapporteurs" in a post-midnight maneuver orchestrated by its chairman, who announced a "consensus" in spite of loud objections by the ambassador from Canada that there was no such accord.
While ending the scrutiny of those dictatorships, the council chose to establish one permanent and special agenda item: the "human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories." In other words, Israel (or "Palestine," in the council's terminology), alone among the nations of the world, will be subjected to continual and open-ended examination. That's in keeping with the record of the council's first year: Eleven resolutions were directed at the Jewish state. None criticized any other government.
The old human rights commission, which was disparaged by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan for casting "a shadow on the United Nations system as a whole," frequently issued unbalanced condemnations of Israel but also typically adopted half a dozen resolutions a year aimed at the worst human rights abusers. For the new council, Israel is the only target. Eighteen of the 19 states dubbed "the worst of the worst" by the monitoring group Freedom House (Israel is not on the list) were ignored by the council in its first year. One mission was dispatched to examine the situation in Darfur. When it returned with a report criticizing the Sudanese government, the council refused to endorse it or accept its recommendations.
The regime of Gen. Omar al-Bashir, which is responsible for at least 200,000 deaths in Darfur, didn't just escape any censure. Sudan was a co-sponsor on behalf of the Arab League of the latest condemnations of Israel, adopted last week.
I actually didn't know that the old human rights commission managed to find time to condemn other countries. I knew that it was hideously unbalanced against Israel, and that was part of the reason for its reform. But incredibly, it seems we've taken a step backwards. Now instead of condemning mostly Israel with a few other countries thrown in for spice, the new council doesn't even bother going through the motions of critiquing other countries. How delightful. Diehl asks at what point the council's actions would become so unbalanced that it is "unconscionable to collaborate with the body that conducts it?" We're rapidly approaching that point, and international human rights NGOs are going to have to start grappling with that prospect sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post features a piece by Canadian member of Parliament and McGill University Law Professor Irwin Cotler on his experiences with the UNHRC. He was invited by the council to participate on a mission to investigate Israel's "willful killing" of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. He refused, and explained why:
First, as a law professor and international lawyer, I could not accept a mandate to hear only one side of a dispute. The terms of reference deliberately ignored the Palestinian rocket attacks on the Israeli city of Sderot that preceded Israel's actions, and which continue as I write.
The entrance to the McGill University Faculty of Law, where I am a professor is engraved with the words audi artarem - "hear both sides." How could one participate in a mandate that violated this bedrock principle of the rule of law - that denied a member state the right to a fair hearing and fundamental due process?
Second, the mandate also violated the presumption of innocence. The resolution establishing this fact finding mission began by condemning "the Israeli willful killing of Palestinian civilians." The 19 Palestinian dead were a tragedy. But how could one participate in a fact-finding mission where the facts and the verdict were determined in advance - a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland inquiry, where the conviction was secured and the sentence passed even before the inquiry began?
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Council members that most consistently support the human rights mechanisms of this body - including Canada - all refused to support this mandate.
Regrettably, this discriminatory and one-sided approach has become not the exception but the norm. Council sessions of the past year reflected not only the same contempt for the rule of law, but the systematic singling-out of a member state for selective and discriminatory treatment, while granting the major violators exculpatory immunity.
No, no, said the Queen, sentence first, verdict later. Or in this case, verdict first, trial later. Either way, the Alice in Wonderland reference is right.
It's a travesty, a mockery, and a sham. And if it seems like I'm focusing on it rather obsessively, well, that's because it's not going to change unless the progressive peoples of the world stop turning their backs on this institutionalized anti-Semitism and start demanding a Human Rights Council that actually cares about human rights for everyone--not just those whose suffering can be easily pinned on the Jews.