UN human rights body should be defended

Today, the House Sub-Committee on Foreign Relations hosted a panel, entitled “United Nations: Urgent Problems that Require Congressional Action.” Even before the discussion commenced, Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chair of the sub-committee, vowed to not only pull the U.S. out of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), but work to dismantle it altogether.

The congressperson told The Hill, “I’d like to make sure that we once and for all kill all U.S. funding for that beast [the UNHRC),” adding, “It’s a rogues’ gallery, pariah states.” She claimed that human rights abusers sat on the HRC “because they don’t want to be sanctioned.”

Republicans argue that the council is stained by the membership of countries they consider notorious human rights abusers, including Egypt and Pakistan, but also socialist countries like Cuba and China.

Like so many other initiatives of the tea party-infused Republican right, the push to leave – and even destroy – the HRC is downright wrong.

That the HRC is flawed shouldn’t be a surprise; it simply reflects the world in which it exists. The UN isn’t simply some organization aimed at bettering the world; it is a collection of the world’s nations, which have a range of political and economic systems, the same is the case with all UN agencies, including the HRC.

U.S. objection to membership by Cuba and China is particularly frustrating. No country is perfect, and human rights abuses exist everywhere, but, as is well known, Cuba has provided its citizens with a miraculous health care system, cut illiteracy nearly to zero in a few decades, has made tremendous steps forward in the rights of women, Afro-Cubans and the LGBTQ community, among other things.

While China’s human rights situation still “has a way to go,” as the Chinese president noted at the White House, it is a country that has made tremendous progress: looking at the China of today compared to that of 20 years ago, it appears as if a rights revolution has taken place. And they’ve done all this in the context of lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty.

The U.S. too has some very real violations, including police brutality and executions.  And what about the rights to jobs and health care enjoyed in countries like Cuba, but not guaranteed to Americans? What about our foreign policy, which includes invasions and occupations of sovereign states?

As Cuba often points out, most human rights abuses taking place there occur not in Cuban-controlled territory, but in Guantanamo Bay, where even torture isn’t unheard of.

It is to the benefit of all humanity that these and other countries, including the worst, meet to discuss rights. Isn’t it better that  repressive regimes  are part of the debate on human rights? It’s highly unlikely that Saudi views on women’s rights are going to win the day, and membership in the council means that their records will be reviewed every four years.

There are some truly troubling aspects of the Human Rights Commission’s Advisory Board, especially some of its personnel, including 9/11 conspiracy theorist Richard Falk. President Obama has called for the board’s abolition, but changing or abolishing this board is entirely different than calling for the end of the Human Rights Council itself.

Given the uneven nature of development, the different types of societies in the world and, above all, the desire by all people for more rights, the role of the HRC is crucial. There, at the very least, floors can be set, nations can be reviewed, cases can be made, issues can be raised and agreements can be reached. If nothing else, agreements reached can help progressive democratic movements in dictatorial regimes. During the days of apartheid, UN resolutions and statements against apartheid helped to strengthen the solidarity movement against white rule, for example.

Rights are not given; people win them through struggle. Each country will move forward insofar as its people fight back. But history has also shown that international solidarity can help democratic movements. And the HRC can help to legitimize the process and to facilitate discussion.

The U.S. should help to strengthen and empower the committee, not destroy it.

Image: Courtesy United Nations Information Service Geneva // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0