Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Foxes guarding the Human Rights henhouses: A UN tradition continues

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Or Avi-Guy

UN agencies dedicated to the promotion of human rights, mandated with the protection of the world's most vulnerable and marginalised populations, have long been subject to widespread criticism for their politicization, hypocrisy, and anti-Israel bias. The former UN Commission for Human Rights was in fact so discredited that it had to be disassembled and re-packaged as the UN Human Rights Council. Yet over and over again, the UNHRC has proven to be plagued with the same problems which haunted its predecessor - most notably appointing egregious human rights violators to high-profile leadership positions.

The most recent case in point has been the appointment of Mauritania as UNHRC vice president. Mauritania is a country where approximately 800,000 people (20% of the population), including children, live as slaves. The enslavement of the Haratin minority there has typically been justified by reference to Islamic Sharia Law.

In the 21st century, the vice-president of what is supposed to be the leading agency for the promotion of universal human rights is a country where slavery still exists, where some people are the property of others; their bodies are "loaned" and the women are sexually abused. It is hard to think of a more extreme antithesis to human rights than this. Appointing a country with such an abysmal human rights track record, where severe human rights abuses are institutionalized throughout society, sends exactly the wrong message to other human rights abusers- to improve their reputation they need not reform, all they need to do is join the UNHRC. Moreover, this latest case is merely one example from a long and ever-expanding list of similar instances of the worst human rights abusers being placed in charge of overseeing the human rights of others.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) provides us with another sad example- recently Iran joined UNICEF's Executive Board's leadership bureau, which is tasked with overseeing operations, allocating aid, and approving policies. This appointent is not only a symbol of legitimisation for Iran at a time when is it under international sanctions for its blatant breach of international treaties and binding UN Security Council resolutions in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is particularly appalling due to the abuse of children's rights in the Islamic republic.

Iran, in fact, is in open breach of a major international commitment in relation to children - it still practices child executions, prohibited under international laws and conventions to which it is party (The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)). Iran's execution rate per capita is the highest in the world and in its legal system girls are legally liable for their actions when they are 9 years old and boys when they're 15 years old. According to human rights NGOs, Iran has executed over 40 minors in the past 8 years, and 100 more minors are awaiting execution, as the Iranian authorities usually wait until minor offenders are 18 before executing them. It is beyond absurd that a country in which primary school children can be sentenced to death will be represented in the board of a UN agency charged with the protection of children and their wellbeing.

And the absurdity is far from over - In late January Sudan was elected as vice president of the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). This was only the beginning - things became even more Orwellian when it was recommended that Sudan would chair the organisation's humanitarian affairs segment. The humanitarian crisis in Sudan and the Sudanese regime's human rights violations are so extreme - Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is under indictment from the International Criminal Court for both war crimes and crimes against humanity - that it is hard to imagine a more ridiculous recommendation. Only objections by the US, EU and Canada prevented Sudan's election, and the vote was postponed. To name a country run by an indicted war criminal as chair of an international body overseeing humanitarian affairs goes beyond a joke - it amounts to a mockery, not only of the UN as a body, but of the humanitarian universal values it seeks to promote and protect.

The UN circus continues - the UN's "Decolonization Committee" charged with pursuing human rights and opposing the ‘subjugation, domination and exploitation' of peoples, has unanimously re-elected Syria's representative as its "rapporteur." Seems like Syria's own citizens are not entitled to such protections, as far as the folks in the Decolonization Committee are concerned. With the death toll in Syrian now reaching 70,000, and with no end in sight, how can the Assad regime serve in any position of authority in a UN humanitarian or human rights related organ?

The legitimisation of the world's worst human rights violating regimes by appointing them to top positions in UN human rights organs is not a new phenomenon. It continuously undermines universal human rights standards and further jeopardises the world's most vulnerable populations: women, children, ethnic minorities, and persecuted people facing conflict and violence.

Anyone who is truly committed to human rights and the protection of people in humanitarian crises should be outraged by these recent appointment and deeply offended by the moral bankruptcy which appears to characterise the UN human rights organs.


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