Judging Human Rights

Those who say the United Nations has outlived its utility could easily point to this year's session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which opened March 17 in Geneva.

Founded in 1946, the commission investigates and reports on a range of human rights issues, from freedom of religion, speech, and the press to problems like torture, executions, and access to food and education. Since no nation likes UN criticism, some in the past have made at least token gestures to try to ward off censure. China, for example, has signed UN rights treaties, released a few political prisoners, and invited UN rights experts to visit.

In recent years, however, violators have adopted a new tack to prevent criticism. Nations with terrible human rights records seek membership so they can work to prevent the body from issuing resolutions condemning them. Human Rights Watch, a private monitoring group, claims that about two dozen of the 53 current members are there simply to frustrate the commission's work.

The situation reached rock bottom last year, when the US couldn't even get elected to a seat - although it's back now. This year's commission finds such human rights-abusers as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe sitting as members. Even more deplorable, the chairwoman is Libya's ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

If a nation can't kill a resolution, it may work behind the scenes to promote one that grossly understates the seriousness of violations. For example, Arab militia groups from northern Sudan routinely seize hundreds of black African women and children from the south and sell them into physical and sexual slavery. Yet commission resolutions condemning the government's failure to stop the slave raids are frequently watered down to censure mere "abductions."

To prevent the session from becoming an annual charade, the UN should adopt standards as to who can and cannot be a commission member. Drafting such rules will be a delicate task. But the commission's future credibility - along with that of the UN itself - depends on it.

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