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Why Principle Matters at UN Human Rights Council

In this column, Mandeep Tiwana, a lawyer specialising in human rights and civil society issues and Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, argues that too often principle is being abandoned at the United Nations Human Rights Council and that every time this happens the legitimacy of the global governance institution suffers.

JOHANNESBURG, Sep 2 2014 (IPS) - The killings of hundreds of civilians, including scores of children, in Gaza – whose only fault was to have been born on the wrong side of the wall – was a major point of contention at the United Nations Human Rights Council at the end of July.

The high death toll caused by indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by the Israeli military has resulted in what may very likely be war crimes. The United Nations has said that 70 percent of those killed in Gaza were civilians.

Mandeep Tiwana

Mandeep Tiwana

Yet Western democracies, normally proactive on human rights issues at the Council, chose to withhold their vote when a resolution urging immediate cessation of Israeli military assaults throughout the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, and an end to attacks against all civilians, including Israeli civilians, was brought forward.

Notably, the resolution sought to create an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the context of military operations conducted since June 13, 2014.

When asked to vote on the above, Austria, France, Ireland, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom chose to abstain. The United States, whose foreign policy mission is to “shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere,” was ironically the only country in the 47 member U.N. Human Rights Council to have voted against the resolution.

“Institutions of global governance should be able to offer a source of protection and support for people who are being repressed, marginalised or excluded at the national level. Yet, too often, they are captured by state interests which override genuine human rights concerns.”

Essentially, each country standing for election to the Human Rights Council is required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” By any yardstick, looking at the wanton death and destruction that has rained down on the people of Gaza, destroying the homes and livelihoods of tens of thousands as well as vital public infrastructure, is a blatant abdication of responsibility.

In 2006, when the Human Rights Council was created, then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan poignantly remarked that the true test of its ability would be the use that member states make of it. Eight years down the line, sadly the Council remains a house divided on the great human rights matters of the day.

Earlier this year in March, when the Human Rights Council passed a resolution aimed at addressing impunity for the widespread violations of international law committed during and after the Sri Lankan civil war, many of the countries strongly in favour of accountability for crimes committed in the Gaza conflict – such as Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Viet Nam – voted against the Sri Lanka resolution. Conversely, Western democracies that abstained on the Gaza vote robustly supported action to tackle impunity in Sri Lanka.

This double standard represents perhaps the greatest challenge to the world’s premier human rights body.

Notably, the Human Rights Council was established in response to well-founded criticism of rampant politicisation of human rights issues by its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights.  At the Human Rights Council too, geopolitical interests of the more powerful states are driving selective blocking and support for human rights causes by elected member states, weakening respect for international standards. 

Notably, the formation of blocs presents a grave threat to the Council’s work. Its members have unfortunately slotted themselves into various informal groups such as the Western European and Others Group (WEOG),  African Group, Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) countries, and even a motley ‘Like-Minded Group’ that shares little in political culture and world view except that it largely opposes whatever the Western group comes up with.

These unfortunate political dynamics have weakened the ability of the Council to be a beacon for the advancement of human rights discourse. Tellingly, the issue of discrimination against and violations of the personal freedoms of sexual minorities including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) individuals remains another hotly contested area.

A regressively worded June 2014 resolution on the ‘protection of the family’ – which excludes LGBT individuals from the ambit of the family – witnessed en-masse voting in favour by the African, OIC and ‘Like-Minded Group’.

Worryingly, far too many countries are caught up in the herd mentality of en-masse voting coupled with advancement of strategic interests at the Human Rights Council. Too often, principle is being abandoned at the altar of politics. Every time this happens, the legitimacy of the global governance institution suffers, further exacerbating conflict.

A report by the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, points out that in an ever more complex governance environment, where large problems are acknowledged to cross national borders, international level decision-making is starting to matter more.

Institutions of global governance should be able to offer a source of protection and support for people who are being repressed, marginalised or excluded at the national level. Yet, too often, they are captured by state interests which override genuine human rights concerns.

Civil society and the media have their work cut out to expose the hypocrisy and inconsistency that mars action on gross human rights violations in international forums like the Human Rights Council. States need to be held accountable and practice what they preach – on principle, and not only when it suits them. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

 
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  • Ferneysien

    I am a believer in the ideas on which the UN was founded. And there are plenty of good people in the Organisation and its agencies — including the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights — who still try to promote these ideals. But the “Human Rights Council” is a disaster. I sympathise with the writer’s comments on the latest Gaza conflict. Israel should also be pressed to maintain the standards it says it lives by, and so often fails to observe. But this Council, like it’s predecessor, is a disaster for human rights. Hypocrisy is rife across the board, but — and here I disagree with Mandeep — largely on the side of the same alliance that existed in the old body during the Cold War — the developing countries (minus a handful of Latin Americans), the OIC, the Cubans, the Russians and the Chinese. Israel is a prime, and given its behaviour, easy target for all of these. It enables the Arab countries, and their allies, to divert almost any attention from their own glaring human rights violations. Why does Israel have the dubious pleasure of having a fixed agenda item focussed on its record? Has China not been in occupation of Tibet for the past half a century? Is Russia not trying to reoccupy parts of the empire it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed? Western diplomats try to defend the Council, saying it can do useful work and members can come together outside the blocs to address serious situations. They point to the vote on expelling Libya 3 years ago — less than a year after Gaddafy was appointed to the Council by the African Group. They also point to the votes against Syria in the Council. But in both these cases the two leaders concerned had themselves broken group solidarity within their groups and upset most of their nominal allies. Also to a large extent these two — like Saddam Hussein who was abandoned in the old Commission by his one-time Arab, African and OIC allies — were or are secular rulers, something the increasingly religious bloc in the Council cannot bear. The body is a disgrace. However, I don’t advocate that it should be dissolved. It provides many hours of bitter amusement for those of us who have the misfortune of having to follow its activities, or rather its antics.

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