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The New United Nations Human Rights Council

Western Double Standards And The New United Nations Human Rights Council

Anthony Ravlich
Chairperson - Human Rights Council Inc.

Countries with a more balanced approach to human rights at the international level, such as New Zealand, should be used in peace-maker roles on the new United Nations Human Rights Council.

While the United States is holding up the formation of the new United Nations Human Rights Council because it wishes to exclude States with poor human rights records the double standards of many Western democracies are overlooked. The US Ambassador John Bolton, backed by a small minority of States, are challenging the draft proposal, presented by the President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson. The proposal will (potentially) form the basis for the new UN Human Rights Council. However the US wants to see greater power to exclude countries they consider to have poor human rights records. These could include such countries as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Lybia, Cuba, and North Korea. For instance, to achieve this the Americans want members of the council to be elected by a two-thirds vote, not the “absolute majority” (96 votes in a 191-member General Assembly), to keep rights abusers out.

But putting this into perspective during the recent Open-Ended Working Groups discussions on whether to draft an Optional Protocol for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (a complaints procedure for those suffering social injustice) which could be of assistance the bulk of humanity who live in poverty countries such as the US, Australia, the UK, Canada and India have opposed the drafting of the Optional Protocol. These countries prioritize civil and political rights thereby marginalizing economic, social and cultural right rights, and in the case of the US this is to the point of exclusion. The US is the only industrialized country not to have ratified the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights under international law. However it is debatable, for example, to what degree torture, imprisonment without trial etc (civil and political rights) compared to a lifetime involving a desperate struggle for survival by the poor (economic, social and cultural rights) equate in terms of seriousness. Also it must be recognized that those imprisoned without trial, tortured etc are small in numbers compared to those living in extreme poverty. But suffice to say that the United Nations has constantly maintained, at least in terms of rhetoric, that civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are of equal status (Vienna Declaration, 1993) so States should not prioritize either set of rights yet typically the West, at the domestic level, only define human rights as civil and political rights.

What is rarely ever discussed is the reasons for prioritizing civil and political rights. Paul Hunt, presently the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Health, quoted ‘the great (African) jurist’, Chief Justice Dumbutshena of Zimbabwe, who delivered a speech at the 1990 Commonwealth Law Conference when he referred to the political nature of human rights in the West. He stated: “Human rights is an ideology used to achieve power. It has been used hypocritically by the middle classes, in efforts to protect only their own rights (Human Rights – How are they Best Protected, ed Paul Hunt, publisher New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Dec 1999).

In essence there appears to be three human rights areas which reflect Western double standards:

1) Civil liberties are supposed to be universal however the poor would have a minimum of such rights when compared to those of the more powerful and wealthy elite – liberal, middle class, professionals who exercise so much control over the media, parliament, the work force and, in fact, society as a whole. Without sufficient civil liberties and faced with a large gap between rich and poor the latter can be left virtually powerless. In my view powerlessness is just as undesirable as poverty or, framed in another way, ‘freedom’ is just as important as ‘food’.

2) While the liberal elite promote democracy it will not relinquish control of the human rights agenda to the people. For instance, New Zealand is only one of 14 countries to have written a national action plan for human rights. This includes economic, social and cultural rights however none of the political parties have adopted these human rights (i.e. they do not define social justice in human rights terms) and the liberal press will only very rarely mention them. Without this information these rights were not an issue in our recent elections. The result is elite control not people control.

3) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often used as the authority for liberal rights (i.e. only civil and political rights) but this document cannot be used as an authority when economic, social and cultural rights are subject to exclusion from human rights law. For instance, the preamble of New Zealand’s Human Rights Act 1993 refers to being “in general accordance with the United Nations Covenants or Conventions on Human Rights” and the preamble to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states “To affirm New Zealand’s commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” however both Acts only include civil and political rights. While section 5(a) of the HRA 1993 does require the Human Rights Commission to educate people in economic, social and cultural rights the Commission admits that successive governments have failed to fund this. In addition social origins are excluded as a ground for non-discrimination (although it is included in the covenant on civil and political rights). It would be more accurate to base these Acts on our common law inherited from Britain or even the American constitution (which only deals with civil and political rights) but references in the Acts to the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot be justified in my view.

It seems America is taking the same political view of human rights in the debate on the new United Nations Human Rights Council. America is obviously averse to authoritarian regimes who can also be violators civil and political rights. By the same token some of these countries under the banner of Asian Values can prioritize economic, social and cultural rights. However there seems to be no more reason to exclude or discriminate against such countries than it is to exclude those that prioritize civil and political rights. In fact it will encourage the continued marginalization of economic, social and cultural rights at a time when social justice have become a major global concern.

Rather than placing too much emphasis on exclusion from the new United Nations Human Rights Council it would be better in my view to set a good example. Those countries (of which New Zealand is one) which promote the equal status of two sets of rights should be regarded as Peace Makers and given a special role to play on the Council. This may encourage countries to take a more balanced view of human rights.


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