To the four governmental bodies that belie their names in his dystopian novel “1984” – the Ministry of Love, which oversees torture; the Ministry of Peace, which conducts war; the Ministry of Plenty, which rations food; and the Ministry of Truth, which disseminates lies – George Orwell could have appended a fifth: the United Nations Human Rights Council, among whose members are several of the worst human rights violators in the world. Until structural deficiencies in the process for electing council members are addressed, the HRC will continue to languish in a perpetual state of doublethink, hamstrung by a voting bloc of governments whose domestic policies consistently abrogate the very human rights the council was intended to protect.
Let’s begin by taking a quick look at four of the current members of the council: Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Russia.
The Saudi Arabian state became a vigorous human rights defender right about the time slavery became freedom and war became peace. One of very few governments never to sign the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the basic charter of fundamental freedoms on which the council itself is based – the Kingdom does not allow women to drive; punishes homosexuality and other nonviolent “crimes” by flogging, forced amputation or death (often carried out by public beheading and crucifixion); and forbids any kind of religious worship other than the puritanical, state-sponsored brand of Sunni Islam. Politically, the country is an absolute monarchy ruled jointly by royal decree and religious jurisprudence. No political parties or elections are allowed, prompting The Economist to label the Saudi government the seventh most authoritarian in the world. The harsh medieval legal code is enforced by a secretive state security apparatus frequently accused of torture by international human rights groups, while breaches of “public decency” are handled by the infamous morality police, or mutaween. (The mutaween are perhaps most well known for their 2002 decision to prevent a crowd of frightened schoolgirls from fleeing a burning building because they were not wearing headscarves, causing 15 children to burn to death).
Meanwhile, fellow Human Rights Council-member Cuba continues to live up to its well-deserved reputation as the worst human rights violator in the Western Hemisphere. Recently characterized by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as “a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent,” the Castro regime continues to squelch all forms of political discussion with a ferocity unrivaled west of the Atlantic. In its 2006 report, HRW noted that “Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement and due process of law” under a repressive system perhaps most famous for jailing journalists and free-speech advocates. (Cuba, in fact, jails more journalists than any other nation on earth – with the exception of fellow Human Rights Council-member China. But we’ll get to that in a moment.) While recent reforms have slightly relaxed Cuba’s decidedly Big-Brother-like political atmosphere, granting the regime a continued spot on the world’s highest human rights body still looks painfully like appointing Bernie Madoff to a financial ethics commission.
But for a particularly Orwellian twist, we need look no further than the notoriously opaque government of the People’s Republic of China, which recently outdid itself by retroactively censoring already-printed material about the high-speed rail wreck that killed 40 and injured 192 this month. The New York Times reports that Party bureaucrats in Beijing, determined to prevent coverage of the embarrassing incident, forced editors at major papers to “frantically tear up pages of their Saturday editions, replacing investigative articles and commentaries about the accident… with cartoons or unrelated features.” Unfortunately, this particularly egregious instance of censorship is perfectly in character for a one-party regime that regularly restricts its own citizens’ Internet freedom, jailed political activists like Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo and conducts most government business behind a veil of secrecy and suspicion.
Ditto for the Russian Federation, which, while currently the least offensive of these particular four horsemen, looks to complete its slide backward into Soviet-style despotism sometime around Vladimir Putin’s next birthday. While investigative journalists in China get thrown in prison for reporting the news, their equivalents in Russia simply disappear into black vans, never to be seen again. Given a “Not Free” rating by Freedom House – the human rights organization’s worst classification – Russia frequently votes against sanctioning violators like North Korea, Myanmar and Sudan – not to mention, of course, Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia.
None of this is to diminish the good work the council does manage to get done despite these members or to deride the (excellent) idea of a human rights council. And it is certainly not to derogate the Chinese, Russian, Saudi Arabian or Cuban people, who chafe under oppressive regimes neither of their choosing nor of their responsibility.
Legitimate governments must represent, not repress and silence, the voices of their people. States must face more exacting standards to earn a place on the world’s highest human rights body. Such standards are not being used. The United Nations, in order to maintain the legitimacy and respect due the HRC, should alter the lax procedures and qualifications necessary for accession to the council.
First, it should alter or abolish the geographic quota system whereby seats are allocated to different world regions. Adherence to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not luck of location, should be the most important qualification for a council seat. Second, nations should be subjected to a more rigorous screening procedure than a simple vote of the General Assembly, which inevitably results in all the dictators, autocrats and juntas voting for one another. Third, at the very minimum, states should be reasonably democratic in form. They need not be liberal democracies to qualify, but they should at least represent in practice the people for whom they purport to speak.
All these reforms must be enacted, of course, with a keen understanding of the history of human rights talk and specifically, its imperial connotations. Western activists should also keep in mind the fact that on human rights, no one’s record is clean, least of all our own. We can criticize – even sharply, as I have done here – but it is also important to remember that our own government has been responsible for Guantanamo Bay, two unjust and costly wars in the Middle East and the support of brutal, right-wing dictators around the world, all in the name of the national interest. We must hold our own government to the same high standards we set for others, and that is something we have too often failed to do.
But unless something is done to render the Human Rights Council more meaningful and legitimate, it will cease to have much value at all as a voice for the defense of humanity. That would be an immense and profoundly discouraging setback for the progress of human rights everywhere.
Agree, disagree or have different ideas about how to rescue human rights? Drop Miles a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.