ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42
Columns - Inside the glass house

How US lost its right to fight for human rights

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK - For the second consecutive year, the United States has decided to judiciously keep out of the race for a seat in the revamped 47-member UN Human Rights Council (HRC), currently meeting in Geneva. The reasons for the American boycott of the elections — scheduled to take place in May — are hardly convincing.

The State Department says the HRC is not a "credible body." The reason? It has focused too much on Israel, a strong American ally, to the exclusion of other "human rights abusers" such as Myanmar (Burma), Zimbabwe, Iran and North Korea. But there is a more pragmatic reason for avoiding elections: the fear of a humiliating defeat. As the world's only superpower, the US refuses to be humbled or face defeat (as reflected in the ongoing disastrous war against Iraq).

Since the elections for the HRC are by secret ballot in the 192-member General Assembly, there is a strong possibility the US could fail to muster the necessary 96 votes — as happened once before. When the US ran for a seat back in May 2001, it was ousted from the former 53-member UN Human Rights Commission for the first time since its creation in 1947.

The resentment against Washington was so intense that many of the members, including US allies, who publicly pledged their votes reneged on their promises privately — and got away with it in a secret ballot voting. The US refusal to stand for elections this year has triggered sharp criticism from at least one Congressman — Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California — who described the decision as "an act of unparalleled defeatism".

Lantos went one step further by accusing the Bush administration of surrendering the HRC to "a cabal of military juntas, single-party states and tin-pot dictators" who will retain "their death grip on the world's human rights machinery." Even if Lantos' criticism may have hit some of the right targets, he is certainly not unaware of the firestorm of criticism triggered by human rights abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay — along with the US violation of Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.

The US, which has forfeited its moral stature worldwide, has also lost some of its longtime friends at the UN primarily because it continues to be tainted by charges of human rights violations even while it preaches to the rest of the world the need to protect and nurture basic fundamental rights. Although not a full-fledged member of the HRC, the US has the status of an "observer" which permits Washington to lobby members, apply diplomatic pressure and exercise the right of reply.

But as Mark Lagon, US deputy assistant secretary of state for international organisations, pointed out last week: "I think there are some members of the African and Asian groups who resent being told what to think." Or maybe how to vote?. And rightly so. In an unusually long recent editorial titled "The Must-Do List", the New York Times lashed out at the Bush administration for its continued abuse of power and violations of civil liberties, described as the founding principles of American democracy.

The exhaustive charges against the US included: brutality towards prisoners; the denial of their human rights; the institutionalisation of such denials; unlawful spying on Americans; and the denial of legal challenges in courts. The editorial also called on the Bush administration to restore habeas corpus, ban torture, close prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), account for " ghost prisoners" held in secret camps, ban secret evidence and respect the right to counsel.

The bottom line is that the US should be "tough on terrorism without sacrificing its humanity and the rule of law." Last week, the State Department also released its annual Congressionally-mandated report on the state of human rights worldwide. While introducing the report, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was constrained to admit that while the US "democratic system of government is accountable, it is not infallible."

The highly predictable report rounded up the usual suspects: Russia, Sudan, China, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea. But in an attempt to be even-handed, it also singled out longstanding American allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for human rights violations. The report, however, does not scrutinise human rights abuses by the US since Congress has not mandated the State Department to do so.

But as is customary over the last eight years, China is the only country which responds with its own report focusing on the US, and filling this credibility gap. China's sharpest retort is that the Bush administration has no moral authority to criticise other countries on human rights issues because its own record is "full of blemishes at home and abroad."

"We urge the US government to acknowledge its own human rights problems and stop interfering in other countries' internal affairs under the pretext of human rights," China declared. If only the US had not lost its moral standing, it could have exercised its right of reply. Unfortunately, it has forfeited that right.

Thalif wins IPS award
Our columnist Thalif Deen, who is also UN Bureau Chief for Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, was one of three winners of the 2006 in-house IPS Journalistic Awards. The winning stories were picked from among thousands of news stories filed last year by IPS reporters and correspondents worldwide.

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