On March 18, the United Nations Human Rights Council is scheduled to consider its final report of Libya’s human rights record that was conducted under the body’s Universal Periodic Review. The first part of the human rights review of the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, conducted on November 9, 2010, was an all too typical dog and pony show. Libya’s submission to the Council asserted that the regime observed and protected a host of basic human rights including freedoms of expression, religion, and association. During the review, governments lined up to commend Libya on its observance of human rights. The UPR report for Libya scheduled for adoption by the Council duly notes the praise heaped upon Libya during the review by the members of the Council and made 66 recommendations for Libya to adopt to improve its human rights practices.
By contrast, the United States’ UPR report recommended that the U.S. adopt 228 changes to improve its human rights practices. So, in the eyes of the Human Rights Council, it seems that the U.S. has much further to go in terms of its observance of human rights than Libya.
Farce has long been a feature of the UPR. Human rights activists held out hope that the UPR would be the saving grace of the gravely disappointing HRC. Unfortunately, while the UPR offers an unprecedented opportunity to hold the human rights practices of every country open for public examination and criticism, it has proven to be a flawed process hijacked by countries seeking to shield themselves from criticism—a flaw that the HRC shares with the broader human rights efforts in the UN system. Past UPR sessions have featured countries like China, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea offering false reports to the council, laughably affirming their commitment to fundamental human rights and freedoms. These patently dishonest reports were accepted at face value and approved by the majority of member states in the council. Indeed, these countries received relatively little criticism during their reviews. Meanwhile, the U.S. was grilled relentlessly.
The utter fatuousness of the UPR and the completely unserious and biased nature of the Council’s treatment of human rights were revealed fully by the past few weeks’ events in Libya. Libya’s UPR report up for approval this month duly characterized – without a hint of embarrassment — Qadafhi’s government as (in the summary of Syria’s remarks) a “democratic regime based on promoting the people’s authority” and notable for its commitment to (North Korea) “achievements in the protection of human rights” and for (Algeria) “cooperating with the international community.” Meanwhile, last week, the Council approved a resolution that “strongly condemns the recent gross and systematic human rights violations committed in Libya, including indiscriminate armed attacks against civilians, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of peaceful demonstrators, some of which may also amount to crimes against humanity” and recommended that Libya be suspended from the Council by the UN General Assembly.
The Council may end up rejecting Libya’s UPR report. Such a decision, along with the Council’s condemnation of the despicable acts in Libya, is appropriate and should be uncontroversial based on recent events. But responsible and objective treatment of Libya, belated as it is, does not absolve the Council of its past failings. Where are the Council’s condemnations of human rights violations and abuses committed by Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia or other countries that have been elected to seats on the Council? It should not take slaughter of civilians to get the Council to accurately and objectively condemn the human rights practices of its members.
The brutal truth is that the Council has proven to be a weak body easily manipulated by repressive regimes to provide a patina of international legitimacy on their abuses. The Bush administration was right to shun the Council and the Obama administration has made precious little progress in improving the HRC since overturning that decision and joining its ranks.