The biggest enemies of the people whose human rights are violated are those nations that ride on their misery and pretend to champion human rights in their pursuit of narrow political goals.
The description fits many nations of the political west today. Yet, when the goals set out in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remain unfulfilled for seven decades, the shame is on the entire human race. If we cannot respect human rights, we are not fit to be called human. Today, human rights have been racialised and classised with the intensity of advocacy depending on the geographic area, the race and the economic status of the victims. If the West had been genuine in its commitment to uphold human rights, the Palestinian people would have got a state of their own a long time ago and thousands of poor Pakistani villagers would have been spared death in cowardly drone attacks.
The biggest blow to human rights was the so-called war on terror. In its name, the big powers kill innocent people, including children. Not to be outdone, in the name of extremism, religious fanatics also kill civilians, including children. The people who are killed in drone attacks or suicide attacks do not know why they are killed and by whom. But the killers have no qualms about killing the innocents. Such is the degree of dehumanisation that has set in in world politics – in the human race.
Irene Khan, the then head of the international human rights group Amnesty International, in a hard-hitting statement in 2003 said, “The ‘war on terror’, far from making the world a safer place, has made it more dangerous by curtailing human rights, undermining the rule of international law and shielding governments from scrutiny.
“In the name of security, politics and profit, human rights were trampled the world over by governments, armed groups and corporate activity. What would have been unacceptable on September 10, 2001, is now becoming almost the norm. What would have been an outrage in Western countries during the Cold War -- torture, detention without trial, truncated justice -- is readily accepted in some countries today for some people.”
The nose dive the human rights curve took at the launch of the war on terror in October 2001 is yet to see an upward movement. There is little hope that it can occur in the second term of US President Barack Obama, a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize for stirring hopes of a just world order.
It is against this backdrop that Israel’s boycott of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Tuesday at the United Nations Human Rights Council is seen as a devastating blow to efforts aimed at creating an international order where peace, justice and human rights will prevail.
The UN describes the UPR as a unique and state-driven process which provides the opportunity for States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations. “It is a cooperative process which, by October 2011, has reviewed the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. Currently, no other universal mechanism of this kind exists. The UPR is one of the key elements of the Council which reminds States of their responsibility to fully respect and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The ultimate aim of this mechanism is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur,” the UN says.
Disregarding the noble goals which the UNHRC seeks to protect and promote, Israel on Tuesday became the first nation to spurn the UN process, thus sparking a heated diplomatic debate on how to respond when nations defy the premier world body that promotes human rights. Israel’s action was not surprising. But what is more disgusting was the western nations’ pampering of Israel even after it spurned the council.
Israel has been criticising the UNHRC saying it has become a forum for Arab and Islamic states and their Non-Aligned Movement friends to hit out at the Zionist state.
In March last year, when much of the attention of the Geneva-based international community was on a US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka, Israel threatened to sever ties with the UNHRC. This came after the council announced that it would probe Israel’s illegal settlement building activities in occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel’s boycott on Tuesday prompted the council’s president, Remigiusz Henczel, to seek the views of ambassadors representing 47-members of the council. Almost all deplored Israel’s move. But they differed in their tone. While the Non-Aligned bloc called for tough action, the US, Britain and some Western countries called on the council to take a soft approach towards Israel with a view to finding what they called a consensual way forward. But Pakistan and Egypt insisted that the council should deal with Israel in a tough manner to prevent a dangerous precedent.
“We wonder ... whether this kind of cooperative spirit would be extended to some other countries that are not as close to some of the major powers in the world,” the Pakistani representative said. One wonders whether he had Sri Lanka also in mind when he made this statement. This month or early next month, the United States will move a second resolution at the UNHRC in as many years, forcing Sri Lanka to address accountability issues related to alleged war crimes and implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The UN Human Rights Chief, Navanethem Pillay, will also submit a report which is likely to be critical of Sri Lanka.
On Tuesday, the Egyptian representative said the council faced “a moment of truth” and warned that a soft approach towards Israel would leave “a wide-open door for more cases of non-cooperation.”
In the end, the council president went along with the western proposal for consensus, underlining the murmur in the peace lobby at the Palais de Nations that human rights have become a political tool of the powerful.
The Human Rights Council is as much a political tool and ineffective in promoting human rights as its predecessor – the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – was. One of the criticisms of the commission was that it allowed the biggest human rights violators to become members. Another criticism was that it spent much of its time in Israel-bashing. Of course, such criticism came from the US and Israel. To make the UN’s human rights role more effective and result-oriented, the Human Rights Council was set up in 2006. But it appears that the council too is going the way of the commission -- with even mechanisms such as the UPR not being taken seriously and with the council president not caring much about bad precedents.
With the West playing politics with human rights, Israel is encouraged to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people with a culture of impunity and in a high-handed manner.
Yesterday, a UN report said Israel must immediately start withdrawing its settlers from the Palestinian territories. “Israel must... cease all settlement activities without preconditions (and) must immediately initiate a process of withdrawal of all settlers” from the occupied territories, said a report commissioned by the UN’s Human Rights Council last March.
Because of the settlements, Palestinians’ human rights “are being violated consistently and on a daily basis,” said the report which was dismissed by Israel as “biased”.
It was only on Wednesday that Israeli war planes attacked a Syrian arms facility. It was, no doubt, a violation of international law and a provocation that warranted international condemnation. But Israel feels it need not worry about international condemnation when it is immorally, financially and militarily supported by the US and the West. Israel is insensitive to international criticism. In 2009, a UN report charged that Israel committed war crimes during the Gaza War that year. As expected, Israel rejected the report and, as usual, the United States too joined the Zionist chorus in questioning the findings of the report.
It was only months ago that the US stood virtually alone at the United Nations General Assembly when the world community overwhelmingly accepted Palestine as a non-voting member of the world body. Instead of throwing the searchlight inwards and taking corrective measures in keeping with the wishes of world opinion, the United States became more stubborn in its support for Israel and set about politicizing the UNHRC.
Following the United States’ reelection to the UNHRC last year for three more years, Susan Rice, Washington’s UN ambassador, vowed to correct the flaws of the council. And what did she think was the major flaw of the council? It was once again the council’s criticism of Israel.
“The United States is clearly of the view that the Human Rights Council has its flaws...including its excessive focus on Israel,” said Rice, an ardent supporter of Israel’s human rights violations.
Honesty has little place where hypocrisy reigns. Rice was only exposing her country’s double standards at the UNHRC where it pressurises countries like Sri Lanka to come clean with their human rights record but adopts a soft approach with regard to Israel and Washington’s allies such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which are said to be big-time human rights violators.
Carrying a blemished record itself, the US is projecting itself as a champion of human rights only in countries where its writ does not run. In this hi-tech social media era, if the US thinks it can fool all the people all the time, then it is living in a fool’s paradise.