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April 29, 2003

UN "Human Rights" Commission

All talk, no action on democracy, rights


The last week of the UN Human Rights Commission's six-week annual session saw dozens of votes, but none more breathtaking than the two on ''anti-Semitism.'' For more than two hours, commission members argued about one word.

One vote occurred on a resolution concerning followup to the 2001 UN Durban world conference on racism, that memorable platform for anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Every time resolutions aimed at following up the Durban message have come to the General Assembly or Commission on Human Rights, an attack has taken place on any mention of ''anti-Semitism.'' Last week, procedural maneuvers, led by South Africa and the African group of UN states, with the support of 28 of the 53 members of the commission, resulted in the deletion of ''anti-Semitism'' from the resolution on Durban, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Later that day, the U.S. delegation moved to mention ''anti-Semitism'' in the preamble of a resolution on religious intolerance. Ultimately, it was approved, but not until 27 member states had registered their opposition by either voting against or abstaining. The debate featured Ireland prominently standing in the way of including anti-Semitism; Pakistan stating that anti-Semitism had nothing to do with religious intolerance and applied also to Muslims and Christians, and Cuba accusing the United States of acting under intimidation from Jews.

A resolution adopted on the ''adverse effects of toxic wastes'' enjoyed broader support than did condemnation of anti-Semitism.

The final week also featured a range of resolutions with ''democracy'' in the title. There was ''Strengthening of popular participation, equity, social justice, and non-discrimination as essential foundations of democracy,'' sponsored by such states as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Korea, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Zimbabwe. And there was ''Promotion of a democratic and equitable international order,'' sponsored by the likes of Algeria, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iran and Libya.

Then there was ''Integrity of the Judicial System,'' submitted by Cuba and Russia.

Titles are important. A warm, fuzzy title means explanation of votes in opposition have to begin with ''we love democracy, but . . .'' It is a game that the worst human rights offenders play well, perhaps none better than Cuba.

Cuba submits more resolutions and uses more air time at the commission than any other state. Its penchant for introducing amendments to other countries' resolutions, and hence threatening to derail them, leads many to accept significant numbers of Cuban amendments. This year, Miguel Alfonso Martinez, one of Cuba's commission representatives, was charged with studying and submitting a report on ''human rights and responsibilities.'' After visiting countries such as Syria, to whom he expressed particular gratitude for the state having paid his bills, he emphasized in his report that he was ''alarmed by the neglect of human responsibilities.''

Last Monday, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, UN High Commissioner Sergio de Mello worried most about UN forums having ''dysfunctional definitions of security.'' What about dysfunctional definitions of human rights?

A report last November from the Council on Foreign Relations and Freedom House argued for the creation of a democracy caucus of like-minded states that would operate at the commission to realign the groupings, the voting and the membership. After all, the Council of Europe has democratic criteria for membership. Why not try applying them to the UN?

For one, as the United States discovered, there are insufficient numbers of like-minded democracies in the UN to impose this kind of fundamental change in commission membership.

Second, large numbers of UN members assert that a right of self-determination allows for ''different forms of democracy,'' as the Chinese put it this week. That means that a democratic club with exclusive membership based on somewhat different criteria than the Chinese have in mind would not be the anticipated draw or incentive that Western democrats might expect.

Third, the fault lines of the UN's human rights system run much deeper. The debate over anti-Semitism made this obvious, when New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland refused to withdraw as co-sponsors of the African-led resolution, after anti-Semitism had been deleted.

De Mello this week blamed the whole mess on UN member states, or more particularly on an alleged nascent U.S.-U.K. inspired belief that force is the answer to international stability. In fact, the secretary general claims that the UN is more than the sum of its parts, deserving, for example, membership in the Middle East Quartet. Harder than U.S.-bashing is the courage to take responsibility for talking specifically about what democracy requires and what counts as a human right.

(Time for ACTION see post below.)