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The Same Old Human Rights Council?

In light of Russia’s bid to rejoin the Human Rights Council on October 10th, Scoop is republishing “The New Human Rights Council,” by Martin LeFevre, from March 20th, 2006. It is even more relevant today.

As absurd as Russia’s all-out diplomatic effort to rejoin the Council is given its egregious and ongoing human rights abuses in Ukraine, the United States has played soccer with the Human Rights Council since its inception.

The USA voted against the creation of the Council in 2006 before joining in 2009, and pulled out under Trump in 2018. America rejoined the Human Rights Council under Biden in 2021, and will pull out again if Trump is elected again in 2024. By then it will be too late.

The October 10th vote, involving all 193 General Assembly members, is a test of question: Do the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of the UN’s formation, retain any meaning?

The New Human Rights Council

One hopes that the creation of the new Human Rights Council by the United Nations will reverse the global backsliding on human rights in recent years. But for many reasons, that’s not likely. The Human Rights Council is a band-aid that doesn’t even begin to cover the gaping wounds.

Forming a coalition of the trilling, the United States led Palau and the Marshall Islands in voting against the new council. Besides these Lilliputian states, the ‘sole remaining superpower’ was joined in opposing the new council by Israel, a nation that has decades of experience violating the human rights of the Palestinian people.

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In a stunning display of both hypocrisy and duplicity, US Ambassador John Bolton said, "We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor. That said, the United States will work cooperatively with other member states to make the council as strong and effective as it can be.”

Proving once again that the US “war on terror” is actually a war on human feeling and reason, the United States, which should itself be denied a seat on the Human Rights Council, claimed to be standing up for more stringent standards.

As Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said, "No country with such a record of torture, secret detentions, 'extraordinary renditions,' rejection of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), denial of due process and generations of capital punishment, even for minors and the mentally disabled -- all as a matter of official policy -- should be allowed to serve on the new Human Rights Council."

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Bottom of FormCoincidentally or not, the ‘new’ “National Security Strategy” for the United States was published the day after the overwhelming UN vote. It upholds the ‘principle’ of preemptive war behind the invasion of Iraq, for which tens of thousands of dead, wounded, tortured, and humiliated Iraqis mutely attest to the grossest contravention of human rights since Saddam Hussein.

The core of Bush’s “National Security Strategy,” sounds the death knell for any hope for reform of the nation-state system: “We are a nation at war. We fight our enemies abroad instead of waiting for them to arrive in our country.” Rounding out the bitter irony, the document concludes by saying that “the United States will lead the effort to reform existing institutions and create new ones.”

Eleanor Roosevelt is turning over in her grave. She was the driving force behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which gave rise to the Human Rights Commission, and now, the Human Rights Council. Appalled by the atrocities of the Holocaust, she sought to clarify, beyond the UN Charter, the rights of the individual. Nearly 60 later, the United States and Israel voted against reforming and strengthening the body derived from this document.

(The scope of the Declaration of Human Rights can be seen in Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”)

The headline in the Sydney Morning Herald reads: “America can't block UN's new human rights body.” So another charter member of the coalition of the willing, Australia, peels away from the US orbit. Does this mean things will now move in a good direction, and that human rights will find real traction in international relations?

Don’t count on it. The day after UN members voted overwhelmingly to create the new Human Rights Council, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, “the situation in Sudan, and especially the Darfur region, remains a top priority for this administration.” That is an evil lie if there ever was one. The suppurating wound of Darfur is not only a betrayal of the UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights by the Bush Administration, but a continuing stain on the conscience of humanity.

The Declaration of Human Rights begins, “Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…” Does Darfur outrage the conscience of humankind? Did Rwanda or Srebrenica?

The term ‘human rights’ stands for the protection of the individual from the power and predations of governments. Though the Human Rights Council and the United Nations itself are necessary, they are not sufficient for redressing flagrant violations of human rights. No matter how much they ‘reform,’ they can never provide an adequate response.

Why? Because the United Nations and the international/multilateral order are based on the concept of national sovereignty. National sovereignty is an idea that took root in the 19th century, exploded in the 20th century, and is completely obsolete in the 21st century. Governments will never surrender their power and privileged status, but violent overthrow is no longer an option.

Is there a space from which people can cooperate without viewing the world through the destructive prisms of nationality, ethnicity, and religion? Yes, in an age of instantaneous, borderless communication, that space already exists. The only thing preventing it from being acted on is a numbing acquiescence to the philosophy, frameworks, and structures of the crumbling status quo.

Martin LeFevre

20 March 2006

© Scoop Media

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