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Home > Politics

The UN vs Human Rights: What's the Beef?

13 May 2006

Which of these statements is true?:

a) In 2002, the German Vegetarian Society voted cannibal, Armin Meiwes ('It was passable, but a little tough,' he said of eating his victim's penis), its honorary chairman.

b) In September of last year, ultra-orthodox Catholic cult, Opus Dei, invited godlike atheist Richard Dawkins ('Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,' he once said) to join its number.

c) In 2003, Libya ('Over the past three decades, Libya's human rights record has been appalling. It has included the abduction, forced disappearance or assassination of political opponents; torture... and long-term detention without charge or trial or after grossly unfair trials,' said Human Rights Watch) was elected as chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the body set up to investigate human rights abuses across the world.

If you answered a) or b), remain where you are, you will be collected.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General himself, said of the Human Rights Commission, 'States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others.' Which understated the problem somewhat. Some of the planet's grisliest bastards treated the Commission as a cover-their-own-arses club. Algeria, China, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Zimbabwe and Sudan all blagged tickets and then clubbed together to water down motions condemning Cuba's treatment of dissidents. Seventeen members, including Algeria, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Vietnam abstained from a vote on 'the interdependence between democracy and human rights'. The Pakistani delegation threatened to table a hundred amendments in order to filibuster a draft resolution on rights for homosexuals. China became expert at the use of the 'non-action' motion, a procedural trick meaning a motion need not be voted on and debates could be cut short. The lowest point came when, as mentioned above, Libya got the big chair.

So there were cheers and bunting this week when all the rotten apples were tossed out along with the barrel itself. The United Nation Human Rights Commission has been abolished in favour of a new body, the imaginatively titled United Nations Human Rights Council. The dancing in the streets was short-lived, however, when it emerged that some of the rats who'd escaped the old ship before it sank have scrambled aboard the new one. Algeria (currently passing a law granting amnesty to its past human rights abusers), China (executes up to 10,000 people every year), Pakistan (reintroduced the death penalty for children in 2004), Saudi Arabia (torture, floggings, beheadings...), Russia (rape, torture and abduction have been just some of the weapons used in the war against Chechnya) and Cuba (Amnesty International has not been allowed entry since 1988) were all elected onto the Council. These foxes are guarding the hen house and, while basting birds of their own, presume to tell other foxes to leave the chickens alone. Maybe Algeria is going to get the world to clean up its act by threatening them with a bout of 'chiffon' (look it up).

According to the BBC, the US 'opposed the council's creation, arguing it did not go far enough to prevent countries with bad rights records from winning seats.' US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton's reaction to the news of Cuba's election was, 'What a joy'. With calls for Guantanamo Bay to be closed growing again, at least the US had the good taste not to put themselves forward. But the man who once said, 'if the UN secretary building in New York lost ten stories, it would not make a bit of difference,' was not wrong when he said Cuba's becoming a champion for human rights showed 'that the deficiencies from the previous commission may well now still be carried over'. It's strange being on the same side of an argument as John 'There is no such thing as the United Nations' Bolton but it does look very much as if the henhouse has just had a new coat of creosote and the foxes are still lickin' their fingers. A majority of the Council's members do not have democratically elected governments.

The UN resolution that brought the Council into being states a member can be suspended from the body if it 'commits gross and systematic violations of human rights'. A tough penalty which must have the denizens of dungeons across the world clapping with glee. There's no word of what sanctions, punishments, slaps on the wrist, sendings to bed without supper or otherwise that the Council can bring to bear on rights abusers. The old Commission was little more than a corrupt namer and shamer and as such had not much more power than a provincial local newspaper chasing ASBO breakers. It remains to be seen under the new Council whether the abusers will receive any real criticism or constructive measures in improving their situations, particularly those who are 'allies' in The War Against Terror. The British Government (also elected to the council), for example, are largely silent on the matter of torture conducted by the likes of Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Algeria for the reasons of business interests and geo-political chess-playing. Any lip service that is paid is largely to stimulate the erogenous zones of oil producers or those countries within a B52's range of whichever country we're bombing this year.

If you've got this far, you may be asking yourself, 'What's this got to do with me?' To which the only answer is, 'Where's your bloody humanity?' Thousands of ordinary people are being tortured and dying in prisons across the planet. Not only that, another potential Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein or Ghandi might be breathing their last in a gulag somewhere as you read this. Or a Pete Doherty or a Noel Edmonds or a Michelle Dewberry, if that's what it takes to tug your heartstrings. Imagine a world without Pete Doherty...

...Alright, that's undermined the argument somewhat, admittedly. Anyway. You can join Amnesty International for less than the price of two pints a month. Sign up for Human Rights Watch email newsletters. Write to your MP. Blog about it. Tell your mates down the pub. Like always, if you want a job doing well, you have to do it yourself.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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