UNHRC: Human rights are politicized
In theory, human rights are universal and apolitical. This is what international human rights law insists, for the law is no respecter of nations or politics. But in practice, human rights are given different interpretations in different cultures and are subjected to political exigencies and national interest agendas. In other words, human rights are politicized while their application is, sometimes, hypocritical.
When the biggest human rights violators sit as jurors at the United Nations Human Rights Council and condemn other nations, as the case will be against Sri Lanka during the upcoming UNHRC sessions, the hypocrisy is revolting. Depoliticizing the UN human rights mechanism is just as important as the need to hold human rights violators accountable.
The Council was set up in 2006 with the intention of depoliticizing human rights. Its predecessor, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was criticized for being a political tool in the hands of big time human rights violators and for its failure to live up to the expectations in terms of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Widespread human rights violations took place in every nook and corner of the world, although every state had pledged to uphold human rights upon being admitted to the UN as a member of the community of civilized nations.
Talks on reforming the politicized Human Rights Commission gathered momentum following the demise of the Cold War in 1991 with the then sole superpower United States coming under intense pressure to play a responsible role and give leadership to create a rule-based world order instead of being a conceited bully on the world stage. This was the period when human rights were being given paramount importance in international relations.
Sri Lanka was then in the thick of a war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) regarded as one of the most ruthless terror groups in the world. Yet in keeping with the post-Cold War utopian idealism, the then Sri Lankan administration under the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga went to the extent of adopting a monist approach to international human rights law. Following Kumaratunga government’s accession to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1997, Sri Lankans who exhausted local judicial remedies in their bid to obtain justice were allowed to present their cases to the Geneva-based Human Rights Committee – a body set up under the ICCPR and comprising of a panel of international eminent persons – to obtain its view.
The then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, regarded as the best foreign minister Sri Lankan has had, considered accession to the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR as a proud achievement. Addressing the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2005, he said: “Accession to the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR in October 1997 at a time when the country was confronted with an extraordinary security situation arising out of terrorism, further demonstrated Sri Lanka’s commitment to openness and accountability in the promotion and protection of human rights even under difficult circumstances.”
Mr. Kadirgamar believed that respecting human rights was compatible with
During the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency in 2006, the Sri Lanka Supreme Court in the Sinharasa case ruled that the accession amounted to a conferment of the people’s judicial power to an external body and therefore it was a violation of the constitution. But this is another matter, though the ruling was in tune with the emerging new world order after 9/11.
The world changed with the terror attack on the United States on September 9, 2001. The US launched its global war on terror. Human rights and international law became the war’s fist victims along with truth. Suspects were dehumanized and detained without a trial in gulag-like prisons. Extrajudicial killing was resorted to eliminate terrorist targets while mass-scale civilian deaths were justified as collateral damage. The US performed the final rites for human rights in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where, coincidentally, its terror war objectives and geostrategic interests converged. Amidst the human rights gloom, the silver lining was some European nations’ determination to continue with the reform process to transform the politicized Human Rights Commission into a depoliticized Human Rights Council so that every nation would live and breathe human rights.
Set up in 2006, the 47-member UN Human Rights Council started well. The US which had by then become a serial human rights violator under the hawkish Bush administration decided not to seek membership of the council. This was probably because it lacked the necessary votes in the UN General Assembly to get elected to the UNHRC. Ever since, Washington’s UNHRC membership has been one of staying out during the Republican administration and getting in during the Democratic administration. Accordingly, the US gained the membership of the council during the Barack Obama administration. Then, Donald Trump withdrew the country’s membership with his UN envoy Nikki Haley describing the council as a “cesspool of political bias”. And now under new President Joe Biden, the US will be joining the council.
"With states putting political considerations above human rights, the UNHRC is no better than its predecessor – the Commission on Human Rights"
On Monday, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted: “The @UN Human Rights Council is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it. The best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled U.S. leadership. Under @POTUS Biden, we are reengaging and ready to lead.”
However, to expect the US or, for that matter any nation, to champion human rights devoid of any political agenda, is to expect a capitalist to champion socialism. Often the US rushes to defend Israel, where a culture of impunity exists with regard to human rights violations in occupied Palestinian territories. The US also turns a blind eye to serious human rights violations in some oil rich Gul Arab nations in favour of billion dollar deals.
However much human rights idealists shout themselves hoarse insisting that human rights should be apolitical, in reality, UN human rights mechanisms remain politicized. The UNHRC is divided between the idealist bureaucracy represented by the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner and the council comprising member-states with political agendas. At the end of the day, politics has its way, however intense the bureaucracy’s determination to uphold human rights and punish the violators. In this process, even bureaucrats and human rights activists can fall prey to political traps.
At the UNHRC, nations vote, voice their opinions, support or oppose a country under review solely on the basis of their national interests. Rarely does a nation promote human rights for the sake of human rights. In reality, most nations use human rights as a foreign policy tool to promote their soft power and national interest or to punish a nation which is seen to be insubordinate. Big powers are sometimes seen as big time human rights champions. This is a fig leaf to cover their own shame and war crimes.
With states putting political considerations above human rights, the UNHRC is no better than its predecessor – the Commission on Human Rights.
In such circumstances, a politicized and flawed UNHRC cannot be the judge to lord over human rights violators. We will never find the perfect model. But we can pursue a reform programme to depoliticize the UNHRC with that elusive perfect model in mind.