February 28, 2006

Human Rights Hypocrisy

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Last week, the President of the United Nations General Assembly announced a new proposal to revamp the UN Human Rights Commission and rename it the UN Human Rights Council. The product of months of negotiations between the 53 member nations of the Commission, the proposal will be voted on by the General Assembly next month. The United States, however, immediately denounced the compromise. John Bolton, US ambassador to the United Nations, said it has too many “deficiencies” and should be renegotiated.

Bolton stated last month, “Membership on the Commission by some of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers mocks the legitimacy of the Commission and the United Nations itself.” But Bolton was not referring to the United States, which invaded Iraq in violation of the UN Charter, killed thousands of innocent Iraqis, and tortured and abused prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

The United States and Western European countries have criticized the Human Rights Commission because it has elected countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya and Cuba, whom the Western nations have accused of human rights violations.

In a press release issued last week, the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations said, “If any government does not deserve to be part of the Council, it is the one who represents a State that benefited from the slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, that kept a ‘constructive commitment’ to extend the existence of the apartheid regime, that protects and bestows impunity to the human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories, that supported the bloody military dictatorships of Latin America, that today tortures and murders in the name of liberty which the majority of its own citizens do not benefit from, that fails to meet its commitments and obligations of official development assistance to the Third World, and that threatens and attacks the Southern countries.”

The United States objects to the new proposal’s commitment to the protection of economic, social and cultural rights. The refusal to enshrine rights such as employment, education, food, housing, and health care in US law is the reason the United States has not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Since the Reagan administration, there has been a policy to define human rights in terms of civil and political rights, but to dismiss economic, social and cultural rights as akin to social welfare, or socialism.

Indeed, the United States’ inhumane policy toward Cuba exemplifies this dichotomy. The US government criticizes civil and political rights in Cuba while disregarding Cubans’ superior access to universal housing, health care, education and public accommodations and its guarantee of paid maternity leave and equal pay rates.

The US also opposes the new proposal’s affirmation that the right to development is on par with the rights to peace and security, and human rights, as the three pillars of the United Nations system. Last year, the United States and Australia were the only nations to vote against a General Assembly resolution on the Right to Development, which was passed by a vote of 48 to 2, with 2 abstentions. It reaffirmed the principle that the right to development is an “inalienable human right.”

A member of the Commission since it was formed in 1947, the US was furious when it was voted off the Commission in 2001. Many countries were angry with the United States for its policies in the Middle East, and its opposition to the International Criminal Court, the treaty to ban land mines, the Kyoto Protocol, and making AIDS drugs available to everyone.

It was only after behind the scenes negotiations among Western nations that the US was able to manipulate its way back onto the Commission one year later.

The new proposal provides that members of the Council will serve for a period of three years and shall not be eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms. This is objectionable to the United States, which wants to guarantee a spot on the Council for the five permanent members of the Security Council – France, Britain, Russia, China and the US.

The United States also wants open voting on Council membership instead of the secret ballot elections that the proposal calls for. The US would like to make it easier to blackmail smaller nations for their votes.

In his statement last week, Bolton also said, “We consider the United States a champion of human rights. It is a fundamental and bedrock tenet upon which our country was founded. Thus, when the United States falls short of the high standards we set for ourselves, we move swiftly and decisively to vigorously prosecute offenders who are US citizens in our courts.” Yet only a few low-ranking soldiers and a chief warrant officer have been prosecuted for the widespread and systematic torture and abuse of prisoners in US custody.

Ironically, two weeks ago, the UN Human Rights Commission issued a report decrying the torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners by United States forces at Guantánamo. It called on the US government to ensure that “all persons found to have perpetrated, ordered, tolerated or condoned such practices, up to the highest level of military and political command, are brought to justice.” The United States, which has refused to allow UN or other human rights experts to speak directly with the Guantánamo prisoners, rejected the Commission’s report.

The US has a history of scuttling Commission investigations when they focus on the United States as a human rights violator.

Last spring, the United States refused a request by Jean Ziegler, the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, to meet with State Department officials to discuss the impact the US embargo on Cuba was having on the Cuban people’s right to food. Last fall, Ziegler reported that both Coalition Forces and the insurgents in Iraq “have adopted the cutting of food and water supplies to cities under attack.” Ziegler noted that “the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited in both international and non-international armed conflict,” citing the Protocols to the Geneva Conventions.

The United States likewise pressured the Commission to withdraw Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the Commission’s Independent Expert on Human Rights in Afghanistan, from his mission after he issued a report critical of the US. Professor Bassiouni accused United States troops of breaking into homes, arbitrarily arresting residents and torturing detainees. He also alleged that US-led forces had committed “sexual abuse, beatings, torture and use of force resulting in death.” He wrote, “When these forces directly engage in practices that violate … international human rights and international humanitarian law, they undermine the national project of establishing a legal basis for the use of force.”

“The United States and the coalition forces consider themselves above and beyond the reach of the law,” Professor Bassiouni told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “They feel that human rights don’t apply to them, the international conventions don’t apply to them, nobody can ask them what they’re doing, and nobody can hold them accountable.”

Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh concurs. He wrote, “In the cathedral of human rights, the US is more like a flying buttress than a pillar – choosing to stand outside the international structure supporting the international human rights system but without being willing to subject its own conduct to the scrutiny of the system.”

The composition of the new Council will not likely differ significantly from the old Commission. “That reality,” according to Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, “reflects the failure of the John Bolton-led US effort to impose an entirely new human rights infrastructure on the United Nations, one that would privilege those countries given a seal of approval by Washington to serve on the Council, with others, especially those in bad graces in Washington, prohibited from serving.”

In the next few weeks, we can expect some strong arm-twisting by the United States to scuttle the new proposal.