Samuel Coates writes:
Samuel Coates writes:
Tom Porteous, London Director of Human Rights Watch, kicked off the session with his general thoughts on the United Nations as it stands. He cautioned that the US and UK’s moral authority had been tarnished by their own human rights abuses, as had that of the Human Rights Commission and now the Council for having members who fall way short of having the highest standards in human rights domestically.
Tom’s main concern was for the Council to have teeth by the UN beginning to "operationalise the responsibility to protect". This would be easier if the office of High Commissioner of Human Rights scanned the horizon more and the Secretary General spoke out on the RTP agenda. He highlighted the chasm between rhetoric and reality, between pledges made by member states and their own records. The Council seemed to be an improvement on the Commission but the way that regions offered the same number of candidate countries as there were places, meant that unfortunately countries like Egypt in the Africa region went through without any difficulty. The saving grace for this system was that Belarus was blocked from membership (but only because Bosnia was persuaded to stand alongside Slovenia). This served as a useful deterrent to nations with dubious records applying in future, he said.
Geoffrey Robertson QC, a leading human rights barrister and author of Crimes Against Humanity, offered some interesting insights into the UN’s way of operating. He agreed that the membership rules of the Council had a lot to be desired, arguing that members should at least be required to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
His main criticism of the UN, an organization he still does some human rights legal work for, was that it was something of a "diplofest". The parts that worked best are those that are independently and meritocratically run, but in the main all appointments and delegations rely on power and contacts. Another specific recommendation for reform was to change how the Red Cross is the only legal entrant to prisons around the world, whilst not being allowed to publish what it sees. The UK could take the lead on this by waiving its right to secrecy, he argued.
Regular BritainAndAmerica commentator and one-time member of the US Congressional Taskforce on the UN, Joseph Loconte, added some American spice to the mix with his engaging speech on the "temptation of utopianism". He criticized the blurring between inalienable natural rights and socio-economic expectations, a problem going back to 1940, for debasing human dignity.
The thrust of Loconte’s recommendations was to make it clear that membership of the UN comes with responsibilities as well as privileges, and that it could and would be revoked if members didn’t live up to that. He indicated support for a Community of Democracies (more like McCain’s League than the rather passive CD), and for some kind of international military command structure that could take action in urgent crises if the Security Council and NATO don’t.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick, former UK Ambassador to the UN and Chairman of the United Nations Association of the UK, concluded the monologues with a more diplomatic, realpolitik approach. He was more positive about the UN in that he believed it was the only realistic means to the desired end for many of these issues, and that banning certain countries from it merely serves to erode its legitimacy.
In terms of membership of the Human Rights Council, Lord Hannay thought it desirable to not cram it with "sqeaky clean" countries but instead include some "unconverted" countries (Loconte later expressed concern that the unconverted could influence more than they are influenced). He pointed out some of the improvements made to the Commission in becoming the Council; that the membership had been slightly reduced, that it met more regularly (3 times a year for 10 weeks at a time), could hold special sessions, had set up a periodic review, and that the election procedures made it harder for the worst human rights offenders to join (and easier to expel).
Stephen Crabb MP, Chairman of the proceedings, started the Q&A by asking when an appropriate time would be to judge the Council’s performance (it is 10 months old). Tom Porteous summed up the general feeling when he said it would need at least a year to properly analyse how much of an improvement on the Commission it was, but that it had to be judged on a case-by-case basis.
The UK’s role in the Council was generally praised as one of the most constructive and committed of any country, shown by its large presence at Geneva. It was also thought however that the US would not reapply for membership within a couple of years due to unpopularity and domestic scepticism of its merits, but that it should do when practically possible.
Another topic that was discussed for some time, brought up by Commission member Richard Blakeway, was whether the UN should have a rapid response force. Richard said that reforms tended to be either actionable, achievable or untenable, and that although a RRF would fall into the latter category it was certainly a desirable objective. Geoffrey Robertson asserted that America would be the main block to such a force but that China might be more emollient with the Olympics coming up. Lord Hannay pointed out that it was essential to distinguish between a rapid reaction force and a rapid reaction capability. There was strong agreement on the need to cut deployment speeds down from the current 3 months or so, but it was clear it would not be an easy task.
Other points of discussion included the role of business in putting pressure on human rights abusers, and the need to pay attention to countries that are only threats to themselves such as Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka.
All in all, it was in all objectivity a very insightful session and the Commission will submit an internal report to the Party’s foreign policy team based on it. The next hearing will be on Iran’s discrimination and persecution of minorities, on July 3rd.