By Kalinga Seneviratne*
Making a statement during its latest session in Geneva, UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein lamented that many of their member states do not tolerate criticism and scrutiny and there is an increasing trend of governments moving to restrict and persecute voices of civil society.
“I, together with many of my colleagues at the office, feel exhausted and angry,” Zeid said. “Exhausted, because the system is barely able to cope, given the resources available to it, while human misery accelerates . . . And angry, because it seems that little that we say will change this. Unless we change dramatically in how we think and behave as international actors.”
Perhaps Prince Zeid would have found answers to his misery if he took a close look at how his own organization – UNHRC – functions.
If you go through the list of issues the UNHRC’s just concluded 30th session dealt with, most of the resolutions were directed at weak and small countries like Somalia, Yemen, Cambodia, Sudan and Sri Lanka, while the human rights violations perpetuated by rich countries such as the U.S., UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in their bombing campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan were virtually ignored.
There has been no debate at all at the UNHRC nor for that matter at the UN General Assembly about the so-called “regime change” or “R2P” (Right to Protect) ideology of the West that has been destablising countries that are not serving western strategic interests and putting millions of people into desperate situations, and at the mercy of human traffickers to flee to the West.
The UN’s double standards took a gigantic step forward when it was revealed during the latest sessions that the UNHRC has hidden from public knowledge the appointment of a Saudi Arabian official to a top position at the Council.
Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the United Nations at Geneva, was appointed in June as the head of the five-member Consultative Group, a significant UNHRC panel. His election, however, remained unreported until September 20, when UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, reported his re-appointment, citing a UN document dated September 17.
The Consultative Group is tasked with choosing officials for 77 positions to address country-specific and thematic human rights cases across the world. The revelation of the appointment has prompted massive international outcry with some human rights groups calling it as “grotesque”, “outrageous”, and “scandalous”.
Saudi Arabia ranks 164 out of 180 countries in Reporters Sans Frontiers Press Freedom Index. While Saudi Arabia has rejected rising calls for political reforms, Amnesty International pointed out that other human rights concerns include the death penalty, with more than 2,000 people executed between 1985 and 2013; the arrest, imprisonment and harassment of large members of the Shia Muslim community and other minority groups; long-standing exploitation and abuse of migrant workers by private and state employers; and continued discrimination against women in law and practice.
While no demands are made on Saudi Arabia to allow the UN to investigate these human rights violations, a resolution on Syria adopted by 29 votes to 6 demanded that the Syrian authorities cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council and the Commission of Inquiry by granting it immediate, full and unfettered access throughout the country, but the resolution did not address the effects of bombing campaigns on civilians and exploitation of refugees by human traffickers.
A resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted by consensus with 38 countries co-sponsoring it, 34 of them European and Western nations and only 2 Asian countries – Japan and South Korea – and Sri Lanka as well as one African, Sierra Leone. The resolution included clauses to set up a form of hybrid courts in Sri Lanka to persecute alleged war crimes when the Sri Lankan forces defeated the terror group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
Sri Lanka’s co-sponsoring of the resolution has been widely criticized back home as a capitulation to a six-year witch-hunt carried out by the UNHRC with the support of the West against Sri Lanka. Many critics have argued that the hybrid courts idea is a drawback to the colonial era where “White” judges sat on the bench of Sri Lankan courts.
“It is quasi-colonial because we have not seen a combination of Sri Lankan and foreign judges or lawyers since the days of British colonialism. That’s how far back this resolution takes us,” warned political scientist Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and a Vice-President of the UNHRC.
Former President Mahinda Rajapakse, who led the successful war against the LTTE and a target of this proposed court system, in an interview with the Press Trust of India questioned the independence of UNHRC investigations against Sri Lanka. He argued that their independence is questionable because the UNHRC is funded for the most part not through the regular budget of the UN but through “voluntary contributions” from the very Western states that sponsored the resolution against Sri Lanka.
“Important staff positions in this body are held by Westerners who make up half the cadre of the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) . . . given the composition of the OHCHR, it would not be possible to expect an impartial inquiry from them,” he added, explaining why his government refused to cooperate with the UN body.
After submitting a report to the just concluded 30th session of the UNHRC by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (UNCIS), Commissioners expressed palpable frustration with the slow pace of negotiations towards reaching a political solution to the crisis.
The report pointed out that for nearly five years, Syria has been mired in conflict, which began in 2011 when the Government launched a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators seeking more economic and political rights and civil liberties. The conflict has escalated and splintered over the years, with hardline religious and ideological groups jostling for power and position across the country.
It has led to a mass displacement of civilians – of the 23 million residing in Syria before the conflict – 8 million are now internally displaced, while 4 million have fled to neighbouring countries.
Referring to the Islamic terror groups playing havoc in the Middle East and the equally violent response from those who want to crush them, Prince Zeid said in a statement to the UN General Assembly on September 29 that “ISIL and its acolytes will not be defeated by military means alone. Nor will it be enough to cut off ISIL’s financing, or to craft slick so-called ‘narratives’ of success. People need real hope”.
This “real hope” may not come merely through freedom of speech. Perhaps, it is time that UNHRC and the international human rights community reconsidered their strategies of funding “civil society” groups to mount “Arab Springs” that destablise stable countries, create chaos and leave the people worse off.
One may need to ponder if economic and social stability is more important than freedom of expression.
*Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore.