CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF INTERVENTIONISM
POSITION PAPER 1:
MAKING THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL A SUCCESS
“The Human Rights Council should not be used as a tool to interfere in the internal affairs of States or to question their political, economic, and social systems, their sovereign rights, and their national, religious and cultural particularities.”
Final Document, Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement Coordinating Bureau, 30 April 2009.
The Human Rights Council was created in 2006. It groups 47 states which are elected by the General Assembly for terms of 3 years on the basis of regional quotas. It is committed by the terms of the General Assembly Resolution which established it to be guided by “the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.”
The Council has struggled to live up to this noble calling, for a simple and intractable constitutional reason. The original Charter of the United Nations is founded firmly and explicitly on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. Article 1 of the UN Charter says,
“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter.”
The Human Rights Council’s troubles flow from the fact that it was created to do something which is incompatible with the Charter. Non-intervention is not an abstract dogma: it is a practical rule based on the fact that states control territories and that they alone are responsible for what happens on them. The UN Charter is based on state sovereignty because the world has always been divided up into separate states and it would be madness to ignore this fact when trying to structure the international system.
Unfortunately, as is inevitable when any “human rights” body is created, the Council has indeed tended to ignore this basic truth and instead operate as an echo-chamber for various sectoral interests, politically motivated NGOs and powerful states in Western Europe and North America seeking justification for their new-found doctrine known as “responsibility to protect”.
The Council was hijacked by such interests last year. On 25 February 2011, the Council adopted a resolution “by consensus”, i.e. without a vote, which recommended, inter alia, that Libya be expelled from the Council. It did this on the basis of claims made by NGOs and other interested parties about human rights abuses in Libya which later turned out to be false. One of the persons who made these claims later admitted they had been made without any evidence.
The Council never investigated the claims but instead accepted them at face value. The very next day, the Security Council specifically invoked them to pass Resolution 1970 which referred Libya to the ICC on the basis that crimes against humanity were being committed there – the allegation made by the NGOs. The General Assembly did not investigate the claims either but nonetheless suspended Libya a week later, on 1 March 2011. Finally, the Security Council authorised “all necessary means”, i.e. military force, to be deployed against Libya in Resolution 1973 on 17 March 2011. The bombs started to fall on 19 March.
In other words, the Human Rights Council acted as a vector for war propaganda. The credence it lent to unsubstantiated claims led directly to the NATO attack. According to the Libyan rebels themselves, 50,000 people were killed in the ensuing fighting over the next six months and, today, anarchy now reigns in Libya while Islamists run riot.
The Human Rights Council’s resolution also led directly to the first ever Security Council resolution to be based on the concept of “responsibility to protect”. The Council has therefore proved itself to be an instrument of interventionism as well as of great power politics. It did this even in spite of the fact that its very own Universal Periodic Review – the centre-piece of its monitoring mechanism – which had been conducted for Libya and which was published on 4 January 2011, was ignored at the session in February 2011, again as the result of a campaign by politically motivated NGOs, because it was judged too favourable to that state. The Council did not even respect its own procedures.
Almost identical claims have been made recently in the 18th and 19th sessions of the Council with relation to Syria, as the same Western powers crank up similar propaganda against that country. Presentations have been made by interested NGOs alleging human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in Syria, using vocabulary which seems to have been copied from the interventions on Libya in 2011. The Western commentariat is already comparing the city of Homs to Srebrenica, in order to communicate the message being that the West must intervene in Syria to prevent a massacre.
These calls for intervention comes in spite of the fact that important parts of the Syrian opposition have said they clearly oppose it. On 5 November 2011, the Local Coordination Committees of the opposition in Syria stated,
“We affirm the right of the Syrian people to freely determine, without external interference, the form of its political governance… we assure that all calls based on … “droit d’ingérence,” “devoir d’ingérence,” “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect” should not hinder the aspiration of the Syrian people to cause peaceful change by its own forces.”
Because this message is not backed by powerful Western NGOs and states, it is currently not being heard in the Human Rights Council.
The only reason why these allegations have not had the same success as they did over Libya is that Russia and China oppose a repeat of the Libyan scenario. In other words, it is the Security Council, not the Human Rights Council, which is holding the fort for non-interventionism and the UN Charter. The Human Rights Council has not shown itself robust enough to test inflammatory claims or to resist political pressure dressed up as concern for human rights. It has not even been strong enough to apply its own procedures: the Syrian Arab Republic’s own Universal Periodic Review is also currently underway and should surely be respected (although the extreme predominance in that report, as in others, of the views of Western NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House must also be questioned).
To re-establish its credibility, the Council must apply its own procedures and become a proper filtering mechanism against unreasonable or unfounded claims. It must not allow itself to descend into a sort of political Eurovision song contest, in which votes are horse-traded on the basis of political alliance and with little reference to the merits or demerits of each case. This is not what the General Assembly had in mind when it set up the Council.
The situation with Sri Lanka shows that this is a real and present danger. That island state is undergoing a long process of reconciliation and peace building following its defeat of the LTTE “Tamil Tigers” terrorist organisation in 2009. Yet it is under attack from powerful Western states, notably its former colonial master, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The governments and media of these states have been attacking Sri Lanka, effectively taking the side of the Tamil Tiger separatist terrorist organisation which the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated. The former permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, has written at length about his battle there (see his article “Battleground Geneva” from 2009) while the present Sri Lankan representative, speaking of the current battles taking place in the 19th session, has denounced the “politicisation” of the Council.
The fundamental problem is that the very structure of the Council leads to a dialogue of the deaf between, on the one hand, states who actually govern territory and, on the other, NGOs and international bodies (like the UN itself) which do not.
Of course governments must be held to account. But so should those organisations whose acts can influence political events, such as the UN or NGOs. Unlike governments, such bodies are structurally disconnected from the people over whom they wield power. They never have to bear the consequences of their acts, whereas governments always do. The activity of an NGO or an international body is simply incommensurable with the activity of a government, which always has to deal with different factions within itself and of course with its own people.
An anti-state ideology has taken grip of many minds, especially in the West, which has made them assume that states and political power are by definition bad while NGOs and international organisations are by definition good. Nothing could be more absurd. States and political power are a necessary and inevitable part of human life; they can be a force for good as much for evil. States and political power, properly used, are the only guarantor of human rights, because only the state ensures law and order in the ordinary course of events. NGOs and international bodies can never do this because they are not states. The Council’s work should bear this crucial point in mind in all its acts.