12 March 2010
The following op-ed, written by Meital Nir, a member of the WJC-sponsored World Jewish Diplomatic Corps, was first published in the Israeli newspaper 'Haaretz' on 12 March 2010.
UN Human Rights Council
Not only useless, but harmful
By Meital Nir
According to the well-known adage, we need to choose whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution. Visiting the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, I observed that the organization has apparently chosen to be both. Founded in 2006 with a mission of "strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe," the UNHRC is today composed of only 49 percent "free" member states, as classified by the democracy watchdog Freedom House. The remaining small majority includes such states as China, with the highest execution rate on earth, and Saudi Arabia, which still employs flogging and amputation as means of punishment. In the latest absurdity, the council will vote in May on Iran's request to take its place among the organization's 47 member states, and some predict it has a reasonable chance of attaining one of the four seats allotted to countries in the Asian region.
Representatives of the council's democracies are caught between two contradictory approaches in confronting the problem of Iran. On the one hand, they feel a responsibility to employ any diplomatic tactics available to shine a spotlight on it and other dark corners of the world, in the hope of contributing to an improvement in conditions there. But somewhere in the back of their minds lies the realization that the world may one day conclude that the HRC - established as a replacement for an earlier, failed human rights commission - is not only useless, but actually harmful. Understanding that things may have to get worse before they can get better, these realists believe that the council should be permitted to appear in its true bleak colors, even if this means allowing Iran to take a seat.
In June 2007, the HRC implemented the Universal Periodic Review, by which each of the UN's member states is evaluated once every four years in terms of its compliance with international human rights standards. On February 15, it was Iran's turn for review and, theoretically, for providing explanations about the evidence of its appalling human rights violations. Not surprisingly, Iran's UPR has aroused unprecedented attention from both supporters and strong opponents of the Islamic regime, not least because of its simultaneous bid for a seat in the council.
At the same time Dr. Mohammad Larijani, head of the Iranian delegation in Geneva, was being asked to address the regime's crimes, other HRC members were going out of their way to help him feel very much at home in Geneva. Bahrain commended Iran's commitment to human rights, China applauded its efforts to promote cultural diversity, and Sudan praised Tehran's efforts to enshrine Islamic values in human rights conventions to which it is a signatory.
If all that wasn't enough, following Iran's UPR - and for the first time since the review was instituted three years ago - the diverse crowd of diplomats, NGOs and journalists seated around the U-shaped tables in the high-ceilinged room burst into applause of enthusiastic support for the Islamic republic. While a long line of Iranian dissidents marched back and forth outside, in Geneva's UN Square, with life-sized posters of children hanging dead from cranes, the ovation heard inside, like a perfect satirical show, generated a feeling that if this weren't so tragic, it could have been quite amusing.
At the same time, the council's democratic members also made a strong showing in expressing their opposition to the dismal human rights situation in Iran. In an unprecedented manner, diplomats lined up the night before to ensure they would have the opportunity to speak at the UPR hearing. In this way, Western countries like the United States, Canada, Israel and others set a distinct tone of discontent with Iran's human rights violations.
NGOs alarmed by the possible outcome of the May vote have also begun lobbying against Iran's candidacy, using the UPR as a platform to encourage a more general discussion of the situation in the Islamic Republic. Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch said he hopes that even Iran's allies will understand that a seat for a state synonymous with the broadcasted death last June of protester Neda Soltan, would "kill" the council, rendering it a useless political tool.
To you and me, the idea of Iran joining the Human Rights Council may sound about as reasonable as letting the fox guard the henhouse. But to some who actually care deeply about the subject, it does not seem so catastrophic. An ambassador of one Western country that harshly condemned Iran during the UPR, for example, told me that giving the Islamic republic a seat at the HRC may finally prove to the world that the last thing this body cares about is precisely the ideal on which it was founded: human rights.
The cynicism is understandable. But while it may be tempting to wait for the final straw to break the council's back, I do not believe that we have the luxury of waiting to see just how far it may bend, if only out of the sense of responsibility to those who have been raped, murdered and tortured by the world's darkest regimes. Though the process can be infuriating and at times discouraging, democracies must continue to play by the unfortunate rules of this politicized, cumbersome and indifferent body, and make every effort to steer the Human Rights Council toward its original goals.
Meital Nir is a member of the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps, which attended the HRC session as part of a broad coalition of human rights organizations fighting the abuse of human right in Iran.
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