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A Shadow on the Human Rights Movement

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, June 25, 2007

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.

Genocide in Sudan, child slavery and religious persecution in China, mass repression in Zimbabwe and Burma, state-sponsored murder in Syria and Russia -- and, for that matter, suicide bombings by Arab terrorist movements -- will not receive systematic attention from the world body charged with monitoring human rights. That is reserved only for Israel, a democratic country that has been guilty of human rights violations but also has been under sustained assault from terrorists and governments openly committed to its extinction.

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.

This record is far darker than Kofi Annan's "shadow." You'd think it would be intolerable to the democratic states that sit on the council. Sadly, it's not. Several of them -- India, South Africa, Indonesia -- have regularly supported the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement in their assaults on Israel and defense of Cuba, Belarus and Sudan. The council's chairman, who rammed through last week's decisions without a vote, is a diplomat from Mexico.

The European Union includes countries holding eight of the council's 47 seats. It has made no serious effort to focus the council's attention on the world's worst human rights violators. According to a report by the independent group UN Watch, the European Union "has for the most part abandoned initiating any country-specific resolutions." At one point before last week's meeting, the European Union threatened to quit the council, effectively killing it. Yet when the meeting ended, Europe's representative, Ambassador Michael Steiner of Germany, said that while the package of procedural decisions singling out Israel "is certainly not ideal . . . we have a basis we can work with."

What about Western human rights groups -- surely they cannot accept such a travesty of human rights advocacy? In fact, they can. While critical of the council, New York-based Human Rights Watch said its procedural decisions "lay a foundation for its future work." Global advocacy director Peggy Hicks told me that the council's focus on Israel was in part appropriate, because of last year's war in Lebanon, and was in part caused by Israel itself, because of its refusal to cooperate with missions the council dispatched. (Sudan also refused to cooperate but was not rebuked.) Hicks said she counted only nine condemnations, not 11.

Never mind how you count them: Is there a point at which a vicious and unfounded campaign to delegitimize one country -- which happens to be populated mostly by Jews -- makes it unconscionable to collaborate with the body that conducts it? "That could happen, but I don't think we're anywhere near there," Hicks said.

That's the human rights movement, seven years into a century that's off to a bad start.


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