Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Foxes Chosen to Guard the Henhouse

The UN High Commission for Human (UNHCHR) has become a bete noire for neo-conservatives. Yes, these are the same neo-cons who laud the inclusion of repressive dictatorships like Uzbekistan and Eritrea in the coalition of the willing for freedom and liberty. It started when Libya was named to chair the commission. This was before the west began its canonization of Col. Gadaffi. Now, The Sudan was recently elected to the commission.

Neo-cons aren't known for being big on the language of human rights. They speak more about freedom. A country that allows US corporations to exploit its natural resources is, according to them, a free country.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been complaining about the weak and ineffectual nature of the UNHCHR for years, but Washington's never paid attention. Maybe it's because the NGOs had been trying to call awareness to the situation in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the Israeli-occupied territories. These places are slightly more uncomfortable targets for Washington than Libya or the Sudan.

Nevertheless, there is a legitimate point if you fight through the disingenuousness. Libya has no business chairing a human rights panel.

The Sudan is home to what is widely considered the most serious humanitarian situation in the world in its eastern province of Darfur, one which many are calling genocide. There, militias sponsored by the Arab government have killed at least 30,000 black Africans and forced over one million people to flee their home. "This is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with so many people in the most belligerent way being chased from their homes. Everything has been taken away from these people. This is tragic," UN World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris was quoted by UN News as saying in London on Tuesday. And this doesn't even take into account the Khartoum regime's tolerance of slavery and the slave trade within its borders.

Part of the problem is the large nature of the commission (50-something members) and the consensual group way in which members are chosen. Essentially, each continent nominates a bloc of countries to serve on the commission and those nominations are almost always accepted. In addition to the Sudan, the most atrocious example,three other countries with lamentable human rights records were also named to the commission: Guinea (where I lived), Pakistan and Togo.

The UNHCHR should be reformed if it wants to be relevant. It should be made much smaller. Maybe two countries per continent. And continents should nominate several countries for one seat so a choice can be made. Ghana, Senegal, Mali and Botswana would all be credible African members of the commission. Thabo Mbeki's willful blindness to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe rules out South Africa for now.

It should be reformed but it won't. Sadly, most governments, and not just those from "the third world," think they have an interest in maintaining a powerless, irrelevant, emasculated international human rights' body