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Police thyself

United Nations | A new human-rights panel has a familiar problem: Some of world's worst violators are charter members

Issue: "Houses divided," June 3, 2006

UN Ambassador John Bolton refuses to "put lipstick on a caterpillar and call it a butterfly." But Mr. Bolton recently told the House International Relations Committee that's precisely what the UN has done by electing notorious human-rights abusers to its newly formed Human Rights Council. The panel of nations charged with exposing and reversing human-rights abuses around the world includes China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

Representatives from 47 nations will gather for the council's inaugural meeting this month at UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The new council will replace the UN's Human Rights Commission, a body discredited for allowing member countries with atrocious human-rights records to protect each other from condemnation. UN leaders said establishing new rules and holding new elections were essential to reforming the highly politicized group.

The United States agreed, but said the new rules didn't go far enough to prevent egregious human-rights abusers from again winning seats on the council. Ambassador Bolton said the council's standards should include higher hurdles for membership, and prevent gross abusers from seeking election to the group.

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Just before the 191-member General Assembly nearly unanimously passed a resolution to establish the new council, Mr. Bolton told the ambassadors why the United States would vote no and why it wouldn't run for a seat on the council: "We must not let the victims of human-rights abuses throughout the world think that UN member states were willing to settle for 'good enough.'"

Soon after the vote on the resolution, the UN elected the council's first 47 members, and the results seemed far less than good enough. Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based human-rights group, considers nine of the nations elected to the council to be "unfree," and rates an additional 14 council members as only "partly free."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently named three council members (China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia) as countries of particular concern in its annual report on human rights and religious persecution. The group is closely monitoring the human-rights practices of six more council members as well.

On China, the USCIRF reported that "every religious community in China is subject to serious restrictions." On Pakistan, the group said Muslim laws against blasphemy "frequently result in imprisonment." On Saudi Arabia, the report said the government "continues to engage in an array of severe violations of human rights as part of its repression of thought, conscience, and religion."

Reporters Without Borders released a statement expressing outrage that 10 countries it considers some of the world's worst violators of press freedom were elected to the council: "What a victory for them, what a defeat for the United Nations."

When Cuba takes its place at the Human Rights Council's table in Geneva this month, dozens of political prisoners will remain sitting in Cuban prisons some 5,000 miles away, most incarcerated for speaking out against the government and supporting U.S. policy against Cuba. At least 75 Cuban dissidents were arrested in a mass political crackdown in 2003, and many were sentenced to 15 to 20 years in jail, according to Human Rights Watch.

The UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution criticizing Cuba's human-rights practices and saying the commission "deplores the events" that have occurred in the country. During the commission's spring session last year, Human Rights Watch submitted another report on human-rights abuses in Cuba: "The Cuban government systematically denies its citizens basic rights. . . . Human-rights monitoring is not recognized as a legitimate activity, but rather is stigmatized as a betrayal of Cuban sovereignty."

Despite its bleak record, Cuba will soon join China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others in monitoring international human rights for the UN.

Some human-rights groups put a positive spin on the new council, saying they are pleased that countries like Venezuela, Iran, and Sudan weren't elected. Human Rights Watch expressed concern over some abusive members, but called the council "a substantial improvement" over the recent membership of the former commission. Amnesty International said it was "fairly pleased" with the new council. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kristen Silverberg called the council's membership an improvement "on the whole," but said the United States would closely watch the council's actions before considering running for election next year.

Brett Schaefer, an international regulatory affairs fellow for the Heritage Foundation, isn't as optimistic. He says while some minor provisions to the council may lead to improvements, the council's membership makes the group "likely to be hindered by the same problems as the old commission." That certain countries didn't get elected to the council doesn't console Mr. Schaefer. "I think you're nitpicking if you say Cuba isn't as bad as Venezuela, or Pakistan isn't as bad as Iran," he told WORLD.

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