Monday, April 28, 2008

Making a mockery out of human rights

Making a mockery out of human rights
Posted on Mon, Apr. 28, 2008

The world's foremost human rights organization has ordered its envoys to
begin investigating people or groups who abuse freedom of speech by
violating certain ''moral'' standards. The envoys would rely on
individual governments to define morality in their own states. Imagine
what would happen if Washington, London or New Delhi tried to pass laws
forbidding public discussion of ''moral'' issues like religion, alcohol
or sex. What organization is setting up this absurd investigation?

The United Nations.

Several years ago, the United Nations found itself embarrassed by its
Human Rights Commission because of its unremitting attacks on Israel and
light regard for other human rights malefactors. In 2006 the world body
abolished the commission and replaced it with the Human Rights Council,
charging the new group with reform.

Suppressing freedom of speech

During a meeting three weeks ago, this new ''reform'' council passed the
resolution ordering its envoys, or ''rapporteurs,'' to set off on the
feckless investigation intended to repress freedom of expression. Not
surprisingly, that prompted a torrent of complaint. The World
Association of Newspapers called the council's action ''intolerable''
and ''part of a dangerous, backward campaign.'' But a close look at the
new Human Rights Council shows that its effort to suppress freedom of
speech may be the least of its failings.

The council works by sending envoys to world trouble spots to bring back
reports for council consideration. Its choice of nations for study
offers a clear picture of its priorities. Last year, it decided that
neither Cuba nor Belarus had human rights records worthy of interest. At
the recent meeting, the council ruled that the Congo deserved no further
attention. An article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs notes that
''Congo is now the stage for the largest humanitarian disaster in the
world -- far larger than in Sudan.'' Might that crisis engender a human
rights concern or two?

Speaking of Sudan, I would hope the council considers genocide a genuine
human rights problem. It does have an envoy working there, Sima Samar.
She recently told the council that ''technical assistance by the
international community is needed in Sudan.'' Good work!

That set off an interesting discussion. The Malaysian representative
said he ''welcomed the progress achieved by the Government of Sudan in
improving legislation and the rule of law.'' Saudi Arabia praised Sudan
''for the positive steps it has taken to improve the situation in the
country.'' China's representative, too, heaped warm words on Sudan for
recent ''positive developments.'' We can hope he wasn't referring to the
scorched-earth campaign then under way in Darfur. Sudanese military
aircraft bombed clusters of villages and, in coordinated ground attacks,
looted and burned homes. Hundreds of people were killed; tens of
thousands fled to Chad. If Sudan is not worthy of a serious human rights
inquiry, then who is?

Israel, of course. On its founding two years ago, the council declared
that scrutiny of ''human rights abuses by Israel'' would be a
''permanent feature'' of every council session. But what of Palestinian
rocket attacks and suicide bombings?

Not interested.

Since then, all but three of the council's 16 condemnations have been
directed at Israel.

The United States ceaselessly criticized the old Human Rights Commission
for its ''pathological obsession with Israel,'' as Alejandro Wolff, an
American representative to the United Nations, put it. Perhaps to
assuage those concerns, the new council fired its permanent envoy for
Israel, John Dugard. He repeatedly compared Israel to South Africa's
apartheid regime. In his place the council appointed Richard Falk, a
retired law professor law at Princeton University infamous for his
penchant to equate Israel's treatment of Palestinians with Nazi
Germany's treatment of Jews.

Falk's views should play well at the council. Discussion there seems to
be dominated by Arab states and their sympathizers, including Cuba,
Angola and Pakistan. The Arabs were the ones, after all, who convinced
the council to enact that detestable resolution to restrict freedom of
speech. Arab states argued that the world too often disparages Islam --
equating the religion with terrorism. Rather than finding ways to
discourage their citizens from strapping on suicide bombs, the Arab
states want to prosecute people for talking about the problem.

The United Nations wisely shut down the first Human Rights Commission.
It's time to abolish this one, too.

Joel Brinkley, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for
The New York Times, is a professor of journalism at Stanford University.

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