Human rights at the UN
Monday is the first day at the office for new UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay -– who thereby becomes the figurehead and advocate for human rights in the organisation. She comes from the International Criminal Court, where she presided over the tribunal for Rwanda, and before then the South African High Court, where she was the first non-white woman appointee. She claims that battling Apartheid and helping to convict the former Rwandan Prime Minister of genocide leave her well prepared to be “the voice of the victim everywhere.”
Pillay will hope that she faces an easier task than her predecessor Louise Arbour, the former Canadian Supreme Court justice (and fellow ICC alumna), whose term ran out at the end of June. Arbour, who decided not to pursue reappointment for a second term, was accused of being too selective regarding the victims for whom she spoke. Israel was particularly angered by her criticism of its bombing Lebanon in 2006, and US ambassador to the UN John Bolton (no fan of the UN or its staff) was incandescent after she criticised the Iraq war on humanitarian grounds in 2003. Arbour’s defenders have been equally passionate, pointing to her work on states such as Sudan and Burma.
Think tank UN Watch found that of 79 critical statements she made over two years, only 10 were directed at states ranked by Freedom House as free and democratic -- though the same report found her less willing to criticise large countries, which enjoy power in UN committees or the Security Council. Given Pillay’s reputation for studied neutrality (and if her comments on terrorism are anything to go by) she ought to be a more palatable choice for the United States -- even if it initially balked at her appointment over her position on abortion. However, it remains to be seen how much she can achieve. The UN watch report calls on the new Commissioner use her ‘bully pulpit’ to promote human rights everywhere. With a staff of almost a thousand and an annual budget (from the UN budget and donations) of $150 million, her office is a well-appointed pulpit, but the fact remains that her only weapon is persuasion.
Council of despair
Another body which might have more sway, representing states rather than itself, is the UN’s Human Rights Council -– launched with much fanfare in 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. However, its short lifespan has been a study in disappointment, as it came under the same criticism as its predecessor: that it became dominated by countries with questionable human rights record, seeking to avoid criticism or to criticise others.
Belarus and Sri Lanka lost their place on the body in the last set of elections, but Egypt and Angola have remained. Islamic members of the group successfully passed a motion in support of curbs on freedom of speech on religious grounds, to the concern of human rights groups (and in continuation of a pattern established by the predecessor body). Efforts were made since to make the body more credible, by a process of ‘Universal Periodic Review’-- peer assessments of human rights among states -- but in June the United States (which had voted against the Council’s creation in the first place, and was one of its loudest critics) withdrew as an observer from the body, calling its record “rather pathetic.” With major states suspicious, human rights violators keen to protect their reputations and other states distracted by other issues, it seems unlikely that human rights will be better championed in the UN at the end of Pillay’s term than at the beginning.