Bluster at UN Human Rights Council, as US and Iran trade barbs

This week at the UN Human Rights Council, the US seeks to draw attention to Iran’s repression of domestic opposition. Iran, meanwhile, launched a fiery attack on the West.

Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP
Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki attends a press conference at the 13th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday.

The Obama administration has sought to focus world attention on the Iranian government’s repression of domestic opposition, and now it’s taking that bid to the UN Human Rights Council, the United Nations’ preeminent rights organization that the US joined only last year.

And Iran, which is seeking to win a seat on the council in elections set for May, is launching a fiery attack on the West. Iran claims that Western countries like the United States apply a double standard when it comes to the rights of Muslims within their borders.

The result of all the bluster in Geneva, the meeting place for the Human Rights Council is that many of the world’s most glaring human rights abuses are likely to go unaddressed, critics of the organization say.

“There are real human rights abuses in the world that a council charged with defending human rights ought to be able to address. But that’s not what the majority on this council have decided to use it for,” says Steven Groves, an expert in international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“This could be the 200th time the US sat in a council session and it wouldn’t matter, because it’s never going to change how the council operates,” Mr. Groves adds.

The 47-member council, by its structure, is dominated by countries most interested in using the cachet of the council to deflect criticism of rights abuses at home, Groves says.

Advocates of the Obama administration’s decision to reverse Bush policy and seek a seat on the council disagree. The US, they say, has a better chance of reforming the organization from within.

But initial statements aired this week at the council’s first session of 2010 suggest lots of position staking and little prospect for action.

The US speaker at Monday’s opening session, Maria Otero, undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, said the council spends too much time focused on alleged rights abuses in Israel – a common observation among Western countries.

In remarks to reporters following her speech, Ms. Otero said, “It is very important for the council to keep a focus on human rights abuses in Iran and make sure that focus is maintained and addressed.”

Iran, in a show of the importance it places on its bid for a council seat in the May elections, sent its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to the opening session. There, he quickly launched an attack on Western handling of Muslims’ rights. “Muslim communities in Western countries in particular have been the target not only of massive propaganda campaigns, but outright social castigation and open violence, all under the pretext of freedom of expression,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Mottaki, who frequently serves as Iran’s spokesman to the world on the Iranian nuclear program, cited the January assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai – widely believed to have been the work of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. He demanded clarification from the US and European countries on their knowledge of the killing. Did Western countries assist Israel’s “terror brigades?” he asked.

According to a New York Times report Tuesday, suspects were able to use British and Irish passports to enter the US after the assassination. The British government has said that forged UK passports were used by perpetrators of the killing.

(For more on the assassination, click here.)

Mottaki’s dual focus in his council testimony on Muslims in Western countries and the Hamas assassination appeared designed to deflect attention from Iran’s political opposition. It also aimed to curry favor with the Islamic and developing countries that will be voting in the elections for seats on the council, regional and UN experts say.

Iran, which must be elected from the Asia regional bloc, is hoping to improve on its poor results in 2006 elections to the council. Then, 18 countries from Asia were vying for 13 regional seats. Iran lost out after coming in ahead of only one country – Iraq.

This year, four Asia seats are open. But with only five contenders – Qatar, Malaysia, the Maldives, Thailand, and Iran – Iran has to come out ahead of only one of them.

Groves of the Heritage Foundation says that he doubts anyone in the Obama administration ever seriously believed that reform of the council would occur as a result of US election to the council last May.

“In their heart of hearts, the Obama people never thought having a seat on the council was a way to reform it,” he says. “Instead, it was a presidential decision as part of a perceived need for the US to reengage with the international community.”

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