The UN Commission on Human Rights has come a long way from the hatpins and pearls of Eleanor Roosevelt, who convened its first session. One U.S. official described the six-week gathering, which takes place in Geneva each spring, as a "biker bar." With this year's session just ended, participants appeared more than willing to prove that the once-highbrow forum is trending down.
Two years ago human-rights activists assumed the commission reached its nadir when it voted off the United States. With the UN as a whole facing its most serious corruption scandal ever-over the administration of billions in oil-for-food contracts in Iraq-pressure should be intense for the world body at least to get human rights right. But this year's session ushered in new troughs for thug regimes. Delegates blocked action against human-rights abusers and hijacked serious attempts to bring outlaws to heel. A delegation appears to have bribed UN officials to suppress evidence of atrocities. And one delegate actually tried to start a fistfight.
"It's reached a new low this year," said Nina Shea, a past delegate and director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. She spoke to WORLD just after a delegate from Cuba sucker-punched a Cuban-American human-rights activist. The come-from-behind blow to the head sent to the floor Frank Calzón, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, and left him briefly unconscious. The U.S. ambassador in Geneva, former Marine Kevin Moley, chased the delegate, but UN guards wielding canisters of mace tackled him first.
The Cuban delegation said Mr. Calzón had taunted some of its members. Mr. Moley, an eyewitness, said the attack was unprovoked and vowed to press charges. Mr. Calzón regained his footing in time to turn the fracas to his advantage: "The important thing is the situation in Cuba, where there are no UN guards with mace to protect the fundamental rights of the Cuban people."
The assault came after the commission voted 22-21 (with 10 abstentions) to condemn Fidel Castro's regime for human-rights abuses. The resolution, sponsored by Honduras and supported by the United States, the European Union, and five Latin American countries, called on Mr. Castro to allow democratic reforms and censured his government for arresting 75 dissidents in the last year. The Castro regime rejected-again-the commission's request that a UN monitor, appointed more than a year ago, be allowed to visit Cuba.
Not every rogue nation needed to resort to use of force in order to get its way. China, for the 11th time since 1990, blocked a vote on its human-rights record. Instead, Chinese officials pressed successfully for a procedural "no-action" motion. Zimbabwe exploited the same procedure and also avoided a vote over abuses in Robert Mugabe's police state. A move to scrutinize Iran's human-rights record failed to make it to the floor.
At the same time five resolutions were introduced against Israel-and blocked by the United States. Delegates then took three hours out of the scheduled proceedings to mourn the death of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. "It's just another demonstration that this commission needs a major overhaul or should be changed completely," Ms. Shea said. "It's just an abomination."
The commission has 53 members, including documented human-rights violators like China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. Last year, Libya chaired the commission. Two years ago, delegates voted off the United States, giving three seats available to Western countries instead to France, Austria, and Sweden.
"Nobody should underestimate the task of trying to rescue the [commission]," said Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner.
"I likened it to a family restaurant where you could discuss civilly such issues, [but] it had become a biker bar, essentially, by virtue of the membership," Mr. Craner told a forum at the American Enterprise Institute in March. "It took many years for it to get to its present sad state, and I think it's going to take many years to bring it out of that."
One major weakness, said Mr. Craner, is in Africa, where the continent's few democratic countries don't view membership as a high priority. That leaves seats open to eager comers like Zimbabwe, who want to scuttle any moves against their own records.
Another African voting member, Sudan, pulled off the session's most outrageous obstruction of justice. Ahead of the vote against Sudan, its delegation successfully persuaded UN monitors not to release their latest report on Darfur, a western province where more than 10,000 Sudanese have been killed and 1 million displaced in government-sponsored assaults in the last year.
UN officials already have described the attacks as ethnic cleansing. They say that Darfur, at the moment, is the world's leading humanitarian crisis. Yet on the commission's last full day of business (April 22), it passed a watered-down resolution expressing "grave concern" about "reported human-rights abuses" in Darfur.
Even as the delegates debated in Geneva, Sudanese authorities were denying two UN human-rights teams access to the region. UN Undersecretary Jan Egelund led one. The other, from the UN's Geneva-based High Commissioner for Human Rights, spent 10 days at the Chad-Sudan border, and also was unable to gain permission from Khartoum to enter Darfur. Team members interviewed Darfur refugees in Chad, who number 100,000. Their initial findings were transmitted to Geneva but withheld from delegates during the debate and vote.
Leading human-rights groups charged that a quid pro quo had been reached: Khartoum would allow the team of UN experts into Darfur to complete its work in exchange for a pass from this year's human-rights gathering. With the team's initial findings off the table, the Sudanese government reversed itself the day before the scheduled vote and granted travel authorization for the High Commissioner's team to enter Darfur.
"The Sudanese government is playing games with the international community, trying to delay the day of reckoning and prevent any systematic monitoring of its atrocities in Darfur," said Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch.
But it's hard to say if the UN findings would have persuaded delegates to vote differently, given their bias against any cause championed by the United States. The team's initial assessment, obtained by the BBC and Reuters, was similar to what private monitors-including Human Rights Watch-have already discovered in Darfur. The assessment said that "troops and Arab militias appear to have launched a reign of terror against black Africans in Sudan's western Darfur region," and that the team had evidence of "human-rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity." It detailed claims of rape, looting, and killings by militias with government help, including aerial bombing.
The United States refused to vote in favor of the weakened motion. "An acceptable commission product must condemn-condemn-this ethnic cleansing, must hold accountable those who are engaged in these deplorable acts, must call on the Sudan government to stop. It must have an effective mechanism," said U.S. representative Richard Williamson.
Longtime commission observers hold out little hope for stronger action without major reform of the commission-and the UN-itself. "In the past the resolutions have been drafted at the UN with the help of Khartoum," said Ms. Shea. "I'd be very surprised if there'd be anything of substance behind it." Oppressed Sudanese-and others who need supporters on the world stage just to survive-should probably look somewhere other than Geneva.
-with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington