Letter from the United Nations: Asymmetric Diplomacy
The reenvisioned United Nations body charged with promoting human rights has ignored its new mandate, instead reverting back to its routine censuring of Israel.
One of the catch phrases of the moment is “asymmetric warfare,” describing conflict between a high-tech force with lots of firepower and low-tech insurgents with a knack for melting into the landscape.
Now it seems that the new United Nations Human Rights Council has perfected a kind of asymmetric diplomacy in which one side of a conflict gets all the vitriol. The other side doesn’t actually melt into the background; it never appears at all. And guess which country is always at the center of discussion? Good guess.
The old United Nations Commission on Human Rights was confined to oblivion because of what Secretary General Kofi Annan called a “credibility deficit.” Over the years the commission, dominated by nations that routinely violate human rights, spent most of its time bashing Israel. The disproportionate focus on Israel’s supposed sins was central to the body’s poor reputation. The new council, a watered down version of what Annan proposed as part of a package of United Nations reforms, was supposed to be different. But as its recent actions have shown, virtually nothing has changed.
The secretary general still hoped for a new chapter in human rights as the council convened its inaugural meeting in Geneva last June. “This council represents a great new chance for the United Nations…to renew the struggle for human rights,” Annan said on June 19. “Do not let the opportunity be squandered. I hope we are not going to see a situation where the Human Rights Council focuses on Israel but not the others.”
By June 27, the council had picked up right where the old commission left off. With the world increasingly anxious about the 400,000 victims of Sudan’s genocidal assault on black Muslims in Darfur, the council chose not to adopt any resolutions about that issue.
Instead, Israel—and only Israel—became the target of tirades and of a resolution of censure. The vote for censure on June 29 was 29 in favor, 12 opposed and 5 abstentions. Especially disturbing, the council voted to make Israel’s occupation of Arab territories a permanent item of the agenda of every future council meeting.
During the June session of the Human Rights Council, Hamas, which had already refused to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, engineered the abduction of an Israeli soldier. Israel’s military response led the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to call for a special council session in July. The result was another anti-Israel resolution—passed on July 6, by a vote of 29 to 11, with 5 abstentions. The resolution made no mention of Hamas—the only ruling party in the world to endorse the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
So the new council was obsessed with Israel even before the Lebanese conflict began. On August 11, several weeks into the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the council met again after a complaint from the OIC and the Arab caucus of the United Nations General Assembly. The resulting resolution condemned “the grave Israeli violations of human rights” as well as “the massive bombardment” of Lebanese civilians. It made no reference to the Hezbollah rockets that rained down on Israel’s population centers or the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who fled their homes or spent the war in bomb shelters. Indeed, the resolution didn’t mention Hezbollah at all.
It’s instructive to see who is criticizing the human Rights Council. Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization that is hardly a supporter of Israel, condemned the council for its exclusive focus on Israel. “The one-sided approach taken by the Human Rights Council is a blow to its credibility and an abdication of its responsibility to protect human rights for all,” commented Peggy Hicks, the NGO’s global advocacy director.
Amnesty International, another frequent critic of the Jewish state, said the council had “put politics before lives.” “The resolution failed to meet the principles of impartiality and objectivity,” noted Peter Splinter, AI’s Geneva representative, adding that it was “a highly politicized resolution that muted the council’s voice by ignoring the violations of one party to the conflict.”
The vote for the August resolution was 27 in favor, 11 against and 8 abstentions. The countries that opposed the resolutions at all three summer meetings were the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Canada and Japan.
The failure of the Human Rights Council to take its mandate seriously stems from the failure of the United Nations to get serious about reform. In Annan’s draft plan, the old commission of 53 members was to be replaced by a body of 20. To ensure the council wouldn’t be packed by human rights violators, selection was supposed to include a voting mechanism whereby one-third of the United Nations member states could prevent the appointment of an applicant deemed a human rights scofflaw.
But too many nondemocratic member states were determined to prevent such revolutionary change. Ultimately, the new council would have 47 members, making its deliberations unwieldy. More damaging, they were to represent the traditional geographic blocs in accordance with the size of the blocs. Thus, Asia and Africa would each get 13 seats. The West would have seven, Eastern Europe six and Latin America eight. The one-third vote of the General Assembly to veto a nation’s membership was defeated. (Once it saw how the selection process was shaping up, the United States opted not to seek membership.)
One of the most respected assessors of global liberty is Freedom House, an NGO that publishes an annual survey in which the nations of the world are categorized as “free,” “partly free” and “not free.” Freedom House’s 2006 survey indicates that only 4 of the 13 council member states from Asia (Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia) are free. In Africa, 5 of the 13 council members are rated as free.
In striking contrast, all seven states representing the West are free; in East Europe, four out of six are free. Of the Latin American members, five out of eight are free. Therefore, of the 47 council members, only 25 are free nations and 22 represent partly free and not-free regimes. These figures are but marginally better than what characterized the Commission on Human Rights. Only Iran and Venezuela failed in their bids for seats. Four that succeeded are, according to Freedom House, among the worst abusers of liberty—Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia.
The outcome on human rights issues is almost predetermined. Sixteen of the twenty-six Asian and African members are Muslim states. Moreover, those two geographic units tend to vote as a bloc. This means that Muslim states on the council can almost be certain to use influence to produce automatic majorities.
That Muslim and undemocratic regimes supported the August resolution attacking Israel was not surprising. What was disturbing was that they were joined by six of Latin America’s democratic governments—Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay. Those members voted in the same way (except for Mexico which abstained) during the first vote of the council in late June.
The Latin American vote highlights an old concern: A determined effort in the Arab and Muslim world to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.
The stage, at least for the present, is the United Nations, where automatic majorities against Israel appear almost inevitable. The asymmetry of the world organization and human rights has never been so stark.
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