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Syria, the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the Obama Administration

9:00 AM, Apr 2, 2011 • By ANNE BAYEFSKY
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The Obama administration’s effort to draw an artificial distinction between the butchers in Damascus and the gangsters in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, has taken a bizarre twist: Syria is seeking a seat on the U.N.’s top human rights body, the Human Rights Council. And, as part of the process leading up to the May 20, 2011 elections, the U.N. published a Syrian “pledge” to protect human rights on Thursday. 

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For context, this is the same pledge system that Muammar Qaddafi’s regime used to get a seat on the Council last May. Rather than refusing to legitimize a scheme that makes a mockery of the institution, the Obama administration announced hours before that it has decided to seek a second term on the U.N. Human Rights Council. 

The announcement comes a whopping 14 months before the U.S. term on the Council expires, making the declaration totally unnecessary to guarantee American reelection. Instead, it seems, President Obama  aims to preempt mounting criticism of his decision to participate, as well as to minimize the serious menace posed by Syria’s ambitions. The move comes at precisely the wrong moment in time.

The Council was created in 2006 without any criteria for membership. The only advice given to the General Assembly says that, when electing Council members, states should  “take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.” Hence, Syria produced a pledge. 

Notwithstanding the current bloody campaign by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad to annihilate democracy-seekers, the Syrian pledge says: “Promotion and protection of human rights are of highest importance to Syria…Syria’s candidature to the Human Rights Council signifies its commitment to respect and to support the inalienable and indivisible nature of all human rights.”

The State Department’s most recent annual report on Syria describes the situation somewhat differently. It recounts that Syrian security forces “continue to use torture frequently” and describes in gruesome detail exactly which body parts Assad’s henchmen routinely mutilate, and how.  >

Undaunted, Syria’s pledge continues: “Syria believes that its membership on the Human Rights Council would contribute towards enriching the quality of dialogue…aimed at the promotion and protection of human rights for all peoples.” What this means is a bit of a mystery. But perhaps this example of Syrian dialogue, from a June 8, 2010 speech at the Council, might be what the Assad regime has in mind. “This is a state that is built on hatred,” a Syrian diplomat told the Council. “Let me quote a song that children on a school bus in Israel sing merrily as they go to school and I quote ‘with my teeth I will rip your flesh with my mouth I will suck your blood.’”

Syria’s pledge is accurate on one count, though. It says: “Syria believes that its membership…would contribute to accomplish the objectives of the Council.”  Since the Council systematically demonizes Israel – the Council has adopted the same number of resolutions and decisions condemning Israel as the rest of the 191 UN countries combined – Syria’s assistance is assured.

The pledge is expected to guarantee Syria a seat on the Council because its candidacy is currently part of a fixed slate. To date, the Asian group of states have put forward exactly the same number of candidates as the spaces they have been allotted. The same gimmick by the African group last May succeeded in electing Libya, after Qaddafi pledged: “the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights principles.”  82 percent of the U.N. General Assembly thought that was good enough to welcome Libya aboard the U.N.’s idea of a human rights agency.

Why, then, does President Obama share Syrian and Libyan enthusiasm for the Council? This week’s announcement that his administration wants a second term was accompanied by a list of responses to this question, each more specious than the next.

The justifications include: “The Council took bold, assertive action to highlight Iran’s deteriorating human rights situation.” That “bold” step consisted of a resolution appointing one individual to “investigate” Iran’s human rights violations and report back to the Council a year from now.

Then the administration pointed to “efforts to renew the mandate of the independent expert tasked with monitoring human rights throughout Sudan.” It neglects to mention, however, that the mandate was renewed only after excising all criticism of the government of Sudan from the Council resolution and substituting such praise as: “recognizing…the efforts of the government of the Sudan in the promotion and protection of human rights.” 

The U.S. list also emphasizes the president’s “pivotal role” in suspending Libyan membership from the Council. This “success” (which should never have been necessary to begin with), somehow overlooks the fact that human rights paragons and Council members like Saudi Arabia and China remain comfortably in place.

Then there is the stunning misrepresentation of “a strong statement on LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] rights” from “a group of 85 countries,” that the Obama team heralds as a “landmark moment” for the U.N. Joined by less than half of U.N. members, a mere statement carries with it no practical consequences. And just two days later, the Council adopted a contrary resolution over the wishes of the same coalition. When the resolution on “traditional values of humankind” was passed, the American delegate specifically lamented that it “undermine[d]…the rights of…LGBT individuals.”

The administration even claims to have “end[ed] the divisive debate over the highly problematic concept of ‘defamation of religions.’” But the resolution on religion which was adopted specifically cites as a role model a “speech given by Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu,” delivered on September 16, 2010. In that same speech, not only did Ihsanoglu refer to the defamation of religions, he declared that Islamic law trumps human rights. In his words: “the holy Quran…places a premium on human dignity — a concept that transcends human rights. Furthermore, a December 2010 resolution of the General Assembly necessitates that a report on the “defamation of religions” be completed by the fall. Making reports of its demise premature, to say the least.

Overall, U.S. membership on the Council has been so “successful” that, at its latest session, the U.S. lost eleven of the fourteen votes held.

Most significantly, the session marked the end of the Council’s own five-year review. The administration billed membership as the golden ticket for ensuring reform “from within.” As it turned out, every serious recommendation that the Obama administration put forward on reform (39 of 42) was firmly rejected, ensuring nothing but more of the same in the years ahead.

We are left with the troubling reality that both Assad and Obama are enchanted with the same U.N. Human Rights Council, to the detriment of human rights victims in Syria and around the world.

Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a professor at Touro College, and the editor of EYEontheUN.org. 

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