Rebukes to Libya mount as UN kicks it off Human Rights Council

UN General Assembly rarely castigates one of its own, even in the face of egregious acts. Ousting Libya from the Human Rights Council follows other UN actions to respond to the crisis.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks in the U.N. General Assembly before a vote to boot Libya from the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 1, at United Nations headquarters.

The United Nations General Assembly took the unusual step of castigating one of its own members Tuesday when it voted to kick Libya out of the UN’s Human Rights Council.

The vote in the 192-member body was by consensus, so there was no tally. But the decision appeared to be nearly unanimous. Tuesday's action, coupled with Saturday’s decision in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court, is the swiftest and broadest action in the UN on any crisis in recent memory.

The General Assembly – a body dominated by developing countries – has historically resisted taking any steps that suggest approval of interference in a country’s internal affairs. Its relatively quick action Tuesday to suspend Libya’s “rights of membership” in the Human Rights Council (HRC) may have come about because the move was spearheaded by six developing countries, not the United States or other Western power.

RELATED: Key cities in the Libya uprising

The six countries – Botswana, Gabon, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Qatar – represented all the groups of countries – African, Arab, and Islamic – from which Colonel Qaddafi has sought support (or has sought to represent) in the past.

“It’s not the usual suspects coming together on something like this, and that tells you something about Qaddafi and Libya and the context in which this crisis is occurring,” says John Entelis, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Fordham University in New York.

Qaddafi has burned many bridges over the years to countries that might have otherwise sympathized with him, Professor Entelis says. But the context of upheaval across the Middle East is also something General Assembly members realize they cannot disregard, he adds.

“Historically, and even toward the most outrageous acts by member states, third-world countries have been very cautious about taking a position that sometime down the road might be directed at them,” he says. “But this is egregious – even for Qaddafi, who has managed to annoy and alienate so many people for a long time. And then there is the reality that ‘the whole world is watching,’ and these countries really do want [the UN] to be relevant and listened to.”

The resolution to suspend Libya from the HRC had 72 co-sponsors – suggesting broad disapproval of Qaddafi’s violence against his own people. Still, the move led some human rights advocates to question the General Assembly’s consistency.

“The chorus of responses on Libya begs the question why abuses elsewhere go unchallenged by these same UN institutions,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “The action on Libya should be a model for stronger engagement by UN bodies before a full-fledged human rights crisis develops,” she said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote.

The General Assembly acted as the international community turned its attention to the refugee crisis building up along Libya’s borders. The UN’s refugee affairs agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, reported Tuesday that 140,000 people have fled Libya into neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. At the same time, tens of thousands more Libyans are piling up at the borders in an attempt to flee, as reports of state-sponsored violence flow out of the country and as worries spread of a descent into civil conflict.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is directing US assistance to Libya’s refugees, while US military assets in the region are repositioning to help with humanitarian efforts.

The US is also discussing with allies and partners the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya, Secretary Clinton said. But she cautioned that such a move entails a number of problems. US military officials have said setting up an effective no-fly zone would require taking out Libya’s air defense systems.

But a no-fly zone is winning support among some in Congress. After Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut on Monday called for the international community to establish such a zone, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey announced a resolution Tuesday that calls on the US to press for a no-fly zone and to redouble its outreach efforts to Libya’s opposition figures.

The no-fly proposal was already being rained on by Russia, which would have to go along with the idea if it is to be approved by the Security Council.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday a no-fly zone would be “superfluous,” and he suggested instead that the international community focus on implementing the sanctions that the Security Council imposed on Libya on Saturday.

RELATED: Key cities in the Libya uprising

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