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When democracy gets in the way of other agendas

Some people would have us believe that the global struggle for human rights received an important boost last week. The United Nations held its annual elections for seats on the Human Rights Council and Sri Lanka was beaten into the runner up position in the Asian region by Japan, Bahrain, South Korea and Pakistan.  Human Rights Watch declared the result to be a victory for human rights standards and for victims of abuse everywhere. It came after an aggressive campaign by the usual suspects.  The Centre for Policy Alternatives and its regular fan club got a lot of business out of the whole thing.  Sri Lanka was accused of pretty much everything from verbally attacking journalists, aid workers and international officials to being responsible for arbitrary arrests and widespread torture in detention facilities to carrying out enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.  It is by now an all too familiar tale of woe.  Nobel Peace Prize winners were drafted in to support the effort as well.  Desmond Tutu wrote an article for a British newspaper describing the problems here as the most serious imaginable.  And Jimmy Carter chipped in with a few words on what he referred to as a deteriorating situation.  While Adolfo Perez Esquivel claimed in a piece for the Argentinean press that things here were as bad as they had been in all their years under military dictatorships.  It looked like a very impressive operation.

And it led to a lot of crowing.  The National Peace Council said that the result would be a blow to the international reputation of the country.  The Opposition asserted that it would mean cuts in foreign aid and warned that it might also end up with expulsion from the Commonwealth.  Human Rights Watch insisted that the result would increase pressure on the administration to accept an international monitoring mission.  They all seemed to think that something big was going to happen because of this failure to get elected to the Human Rights Council.

But these are just political statements.  The United Nations hasn’t actually done anything to justify such outlandish suggestions about its intentions here.

Sri Lanka received 101 votes.  It would have been enough to get elected if not for the fact that four other countries won more.  Sri Lanka shouldn’t read too much into this.  The Asian region simply isn’t as united as either the Africans or the Latin Americans.  That surely won’t come as a surprise. Asia proposed six candidates for four seats, whereas the exact numbers to fill the vacant positions were put forward by both Africa and Latin America. It made all the difference.  Sri Lanka had to compete with two members of the powerful bloc from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Bahrain and Pakistan, while Japan and South Korea were hardly soft targets being amongst the richest and most influential countries of the Asian region.  It wasn’t ever going to be an easy win.  Sri Lanka could do with a bit of context too.  This year, the United Kingdom needed only 120 votes to win one of the two seats on offer for the European region.  Spain lost with 119 votes.  It was a contested election.  Spain wasn’t unduly worried or upset about its defeat.  Last year, Italy required just 101 votes to win another of the seats reserved for Europe.  Denmark missed out with 86 votes.  It was politics.  Italy didn't have the better record on human rights.  And losing the battle wasn’t said to be a precursor of doom for Denmark.  These things happen.

Human Rights Watch undermined its own argument soon afterwards by responding to the announcement with a strong criticism of Bahrain and Pakistan. Extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, widespread torture in detention facilities and arbitrary arrests were all mentioned, along with religious persecution, violence against women and more, including plenty of attempts to interfere with the media, political parties and the judicial system.  It was rather surprising.  Pakistan and Bahrain apparently aren't such great supporters of human rights after all.

It won’t be long before these and some of the other countries elected last week are blamed for failing to deliver any improvements in the global situation.  Human Rights Watch regularly lays into the Southern nations on the Human Rights Council for putting too much emphasis on cooperation between member states rather than on condemnation of their bad behaviour, which it says results in impunity.  The African group doesn't believe in forcing international experts on its affiliates and it has successfully pushed for an end to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Zimbabwe also largely escapes censure thanks to the efforts of its regional friends and trading partners.  Islamic countries join in to ensure that all statements issued expressing concern over Darfur also stress the importance of working closely with the Sudanese Government. Iran has succeeded in drumming up the support required to end scrutiny of its record in the same way.  Human Rights Watch doesn’t like seeing its agenda derailed like this.  Western nations often get crowded out of debates on many important issues by the numerically and perhaps also otherwise superior delegates from the countries of the South.  And the list goes on. Human Rights Watch also gets upset with the Southern states in the Human Rights Council for focusing too much attention on Israel.  It seems to be a sensitive subject.  Arab countries regularly push through resolutions attacking Israel over its aggressive activities in Lebanon and for its harsh treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  Impartiality is suddenly very important here.  Human Rights Watch often complains that none of these statements so much as mentions the terrible violence of Hezbollah, Hamas and the other Arab terrorist groups.  It is apparently relevant in working out an appropriate response to the situation in that country. But this raises a problem.  It casts doubt on the theory that what is lacking in the current approach is damning criticism of member states who aren't meeting the accepted human rights standards.  Israel hasn’t changed its ways.  There are other imperatives that compel it to pursue its own policies whatever is said or done in Geneva.  This doesn’t seem to matter though.

The United Nations is in any case supposed to be run on the basis of democratic principles.  The Human Rights Council is freely elected by member states and the majority of them seem to think that it is not generally helpful to turn the sessions into some kind of adversarial game. Governments have to deal with very many different situations and they are almost never entirely guiltless.  Blame is so often followed by bluff, denial, avoidance or snub.  Threats of punishment only up the ante.  And dialogue presents an opportunity to make genuine progress.  It doesn’t always work.  But alternatives are few and far between for those who believe that intervention in whatever form tends to do a lot more harm than good. Human Rights Watch is eager to ignore them.  Member states also appear to think that if this is how things are going to be then the country most deserving of their combined vilification is Israel.  They have their reasons.  Human Rights Watch wants to overrule them and insists on their addressing situations in other countries as well.

Sri Lanka clearly wasn't the driving force behind these differences of opinion.  Its absence won't change much either.  In Asia, Bahrain has replaced Sri Lanka.  In Africa, Burkina Faso has taken over the seat of its neighbour Mali.  In Latin America, Argentina and Chile have been handed the baton by Peru and Guatemala.  In Eastern Europe, Slovakia has supplanted Romania.  All else remains the same.  The United Nations voted for overall continuity.

Human Rights Watch should understand that human rights standards and victims of abuse everywhere will never benefit from the type of process that it is advocating.  Politics will always get in the way.  It is only wasting time, energy and money.

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