Keep your friends close

UN Human Rights council is the epitome of political hypocrisy, here's why.

In what some will see as the latest step in the political ladder to Cold War version 2.0, Russia has been denied a place on the UN’s Human Rights Council after the UN General Assembly failed to vote for it as one of 14 new members.

Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iraq, Japan, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US were all elected to the Council – while Hungary and Croatia took the two seats allocated to Eastern European countries at the expense of Russia’s re-election.

A spokesman for the Russian government said that Hungary and Croatia “are not as exposed to the winds of international diplomacy” – alluding to the increasing criticism of its military action in Syria and support for the Assad government. For many, Russia’s alleged war crimes in Syria, and its allegiance to a regime which has deployed illegal weapons against Syrian civilians is incompatible with a place on the world’s supposed bastion of human rights protection.

Nonetheless, it will be a tepid afterparty for those who argued in favor of Russia’s expulsion. A cursory glance at the 14 countries that were deemed worthy of a place on the Council quickly exposes the fragility of the agency’s moral compass and presents the deeper political forces at play.

Take Saudi Arabia, widely criticised by human rights groups for allegedly targeting civilians in its military actions in Yemen. Last month the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states admitted bombing a funeral party in Yemen which resulted in the deaths of 140 people. This is the country which last year was elected Chair of a key panel on the Human Rights Council.

The UK government has declined to deny that it supported Saudi Arabia’s continued membership on the Council, despite calls from human rights groups for the Arab state to be expelled along with Russia. In any case, the UK government has made clear its political support for Saudi Arabia – both in its determination to continue supplying the British-made weapons that fall on Yemeni civilians and the recent decision of the UK Parliament to reject a motion to condemn the Arab country.

Egypt, too, hasn’t exactly been an archetypal defender of human rights in recent years. Human Rights Watch has described President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as leading a country in a “human rights crisis” – with use of unfair detention, use of torture, bans placed on protest, and outlaw of political opposition. Not exactly a model for the enforcement of human rights across the globe.

Brazil is plagued by “chronic human rights problems…including unlawful police killings and torture and ill-treatment of detainees” while the US is gripped by its own judicial crisis as policing by force has led to the ‘unlawful killing’ of African Americans and sparked national protest. It’s too easy to mention the emblematic poster-boy for twenty-first century human rights abuse, of course: Guantanamo Bay. And, in a country where political freedom is never the first item on the menu, Cuba isn’t exactly covered in the human rights glory which is so lacking in the notorious purgatory of Guantanamo that sits on its southern shores. I could go on.

These are the countries which are responsible for discharging the world’s human rights duties. To uphold fairness and justice. How can an organisation truly be expected to defend something which its members so blatantly renounce? Perhaps it would be easier to just rename it the UN Council on Human Rights Abuse; a kind of exclusive members’ club for the world’s most tyrannous nations. Maybe President Assad could be given a job on the door, offering liquid nitrogen to anyone who tried to infiltrate on the grounds of social justice.

As the old saying goes, with friends like these who needs enemies. Until we can honestly practice the values that we preach, the world will continue to turn on the axis of political posture.

Human RightsOpinion
Ben O'Hanlon

Ben has an MA in International Relations and Development studies from the University of East Anglia in the UK, where he explored power relations in the international garment industry. He has worked on a pioneering Security Sector Reform project in Lebanon, which has been successful in adopting a community model of policing as an alternative method of addressing the country's security challenges. He has also researched working conditions on banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana, and is a founding trustee of a charity which supports the advancement of better end of life care provision in the country. Based in London, Ben currently works for a human rights charity which challenges poverty and injustice by forming global partnerships and calling for systemic change.
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