The world's foremost human rights organization has ordered its envoys to begin investigating people or groups around the world who abuse freedom of speech by violating certain "moral" standards. The envoys would rely on individual governments to define morality in their own states.
Imagine what would happen if Washington, London, New Delhi even Moscow tried to pass laws forbidding public discussion of "moral" issues like religion, alcohol or sex.
What organization is setting up this absurd investigation?
The United Nations.
Several years ago, the U.N. found itself embarrassed by its Human Rights Commission because of its unremitting attacks on Israel and light regard for other human-rights malefactors. It "cast a shadow on the United Nations system as a whole," Secretary-General Kofi Anan lamented at the time. In 2006 the U.N. abolished the commission and replaced it with the Human Rights Council, charging the new group with reform.
During a quarterly meeting three weeks ago, this new "reform" council passed the resolution ordering its envoys, or "rapporteurs," to set off on the feckless investigation intended to repress freedom of expression. Not surprisingly, that prompted a torrent of complaint. As an example, the World Association of Newspapers called the council's action "intolerable" and "part of a dangerous, backward campaign." But a close look at the new Human Rights Council shows that its effort to suppress freedom of speech may be the least of its failings.
The Council works by sending envoys to world trouble spots. These people are supposed to bring back reports for Council consideration. Its choice of nations for study offers a clear picture of its priorities. Last year, it decided that neither Cuba nor Belarus had human-rights records worthy of interest. At the meeting just ended, the Council ruled that the Congo deserved no further attention. An article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine notes that "Congo is now the stage for the largest humanitarian disaster in the world far larger than in Sudan."
Might that crisis engender a human-rights concern or two?
Speaking of Sudan, I would hope the Council considers genocide a genuine human-rights problem. It does have an envoy working there, Sima Samar. At the recent meeting, she told the council that "technical assistance by the international community is needed in Sudan." Good work!
That set off an interesting discussion. The Malaysian representative said he "welcomed the progress achieved by the Government of Sudan in improving legislation and the rule of law." Saudi Arabia praised Sudan "for the positive steps it has taken to improve the situation in the country."
China's representative, too, heaped warm words on Sudan for recent "positive developments." We can hope he wasn't referring to the scorched-earth campaign under way in Darfur as he spoke. Sudanese military aircraft bombed clusters of villages and, in coordinated ground attacks, looted and burned homes. Hundreds of people were killed; tens of thousands fled to Chad.
The United Arab Emirates representative congratulated Sudan for "making great efforts to resolve the Darfur conflict."
If Sudan is not worthy of a serious human-rights inquiry, then who is?
Israel, of course.
On its founding two years ago, the Council declared that scrutiny of "human rights abuses by Israel" would be a "permanent feature" of every council session. But what of Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombings?
Since then, all but three of its 16 condemnations have been directed at Israel.
The United States ceaselessly criticized the old Human Rights Commission for its "pathological obsession with Israel," as Alejandro Wolff, an American representative to the U.N., put it.
Perhaps to assuage those concerns, the new Council fired its permanent envoy for Israel, John Dugard. He had repeatedly compared Israel to South Africa's apartheid regime.
In his place, at the meeting just ended, the Council appointed Richard Falk, a retired professor of law at Princeton University. He is infamous for his penchant to equate Israel's treatment of Palestinians with Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews.
Falk's views should play well in the Council chambers. Discussion there seems to be dominated by Arab states and their sympathizers, including Cuba, Angola, Pakistan. The Arabs were the ones, after all, who convinced the Council to enact that detestable resolution to restrict freedom of speech. Arab states argued that the world too often disparages Islam equating the religion with terrorism. Rather than finding ways to discourage their citizens from strapping on suicide bombs, the Arab states want to prosecute people for talking about the problem.
The United Nations wisely shut down the first Human Rights Commission. It's time to abolish this one, too.