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The United Nations and Israel

Paragons of Human Rights

By Mark A. Heller - May, 11 2001

- Buried on the inside pages of most Israeli newspapers this week was a story that attracted more attention in the rest of what is euphemistically called "the international community": the US was kicked off the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Well, not exactly kicked off. What happened was that the US was not re-elected to a new term. Like almost everything else connected with the UN, membership on the Geneva-based commission is allocated through regional groupings, and three other candidates from the "Western European and Other States" Group - the famous WEOG through which Israel has tried to gain regional standing through the side door - polled more votes than did the US.

The announcement came as a surprise because American diplomats were privately assured that they would get enough support to come out ahead of at least one of the other three. But when the votes were actually cast, the Americans learned, as Shimon Peres discovered during his failed bid for the presidency of Israel, that what people promise behind the scenes is not always what they do in the moment of truth.

As a result, the US will now be absent from the 53-member body for the first time since 1947, when the commission was established at the initiative of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Monday morning quarterbacks spilled a lot of ink trying to figure out how this happened. Some suggested that it reflected growing resentment of American unilateralism in international affairs, especially since the inauguration of the new administration (national missile defense, failure to ratify the Tokyo Convention on environmental standards, etc.). Some thought it had to do with America's failure to pay its full outstanding dues to the UN or with America's refusal to go with the flow in international organizations (especially when it comes to Israel-bashing).

Some even darkly hinted that it reflected the desire of some Europeans to diminish America's global standing in order to enhance their own.

The one explanation not offered was that it signaled dissatisfaction with America's own human rights record.

Not that there is nothing to criticize. There are aspects of the law enforcement system and the conduct of police in the US that leave much to be desired. The continuing resort to capital punishment is arguably a violation of human rights, and American policies on abortion rights and gun control are controversial, to say the least. But when all is said and done, the US remains one of the relatively few real bastions of human rights and individual freedom in the world, one of the places where the rights of residents to life, liberty and property are legally respected and practically protected.

The strongest testimony to this is behavioral. While political leaders harangue and intellectuals quibble, ordinary people vote with their feet: the US has huge numbers of immigrants (from among the huger numbers who would like to be immigrants), and hardly any emigrants.

Anyway, none of this matters all that much because American presence or absence hardly affects the ability of the commission to carry out its ostensible mission. That's because the real purpose of many of the governments involved in the commission or voting for its membership is not to promote human rights, but to defend themselves from international criticism of their own violations of human rights, or to use the commission, as they use other UN bodies and international organizations, to wage war by other means.

As a result, the flag of human rights will still be borne aloft by other paragons and veteran champions of the cause, like Algeria, China, Cuba, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Iraq will not be a member. It committed the faux pas of invading an Arab country and has not been re-elected since its last term expired in 1992. But its dedication to the cause until then was demonstrated by the appointment as high representative of Ali Hassan al-Majid, otherwise known as the Butcher of Anfal for his role in the killing of thousands of Kurds and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of others.

Still, not to worry. Though the Americans failed to keep their seat, Sudan was elected, and its representative can now make the case that the genocidal war against Africans in the south of the country actually serves their human rights. And he (almost certainly a "he") can also join the community of the like-minded in Geneva to defend their exalted leaders back home. After all, they're human and they have rights, too. Don't they?

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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