Does The New UN Commissioner Have Any Rights?


RIA Novosti
July 30, 2008

30/07/2008 20:41 MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei
Fedyashin) – The appointment of Navanethem Pillay, a Tamil judge from
South Africa, as the United Nation’s new High Commissioner for Human
Rights, was unanimously endorsed on July 29.

On September 1, she will take up a post that many in the United Nations
consider cursed. It evokes many conflicting opinions, criticisms,
grievances, and fury because the person who occupies it has to deal
with violations of human rights, freedom of speech and assembly,
rights of women, seniors, teenagers, children, journalists and
incapacitated people – all in the motley company of 191 people.

Not a single commissar for human rights has left the position without
angry words, with the possible exception of Sergio Vieira de Mello,
who died in an explosion in Baghdad’s Canal Hotel in 2003 (aut bene aut
nihil). But he was in the job for less than a year. The overwhelming
majority of his predecessors and successors left office in a state
of gloom.

Former Irish President Mary Robinson left the post in 2002. Although
she did not resign (indeed, she extended her full term), she complained
that the position allowed her to do practically nothing – everything
involving rights was politicized to the utmost. She was particularly
critical of the Bush Administration.

Pillay’s predecessor, Louise Arbour from Canada, sincerely tried
to defend human rights, but her own country was the only one not
to thank her for her tireless efforts on this position. Even her
resignation was completely ignored. They say that the Canadian
government itself insisted that she should not prolong her term for
another four years. The story goes that Canada was under pressure from
the United States, which did not like Arbour’s criticism of Israel’s
conduct in the occupied territories. She once said that though the
death of Israelis from rocket fire was a tragedy, the shooting of
Israeli villages with primitive Palestinian weapons was not the same
as attacks on Palestinian lands by the Israeli army with tanks. After
this statement, the Canadian government made it clear to Arbour that
her own country would not support her nomination. A couple of months
ago she told the UN Secretary-General that she intended to quit.

Arbour had previously served as Carla Del Ponte’s predecessor as
chief prosecutor for the Hague Tribunal, where she presented official
charges to Slobodan Milosevic and other major Serbian defendants.

Pillay takes up her new position at a time when the entire structure
of the UN human rights agency is undergoing reform. Nobody knows
what will come of it (maybe not much, considering the past disputes,
clashes, and scandals over human rights). In 2006, the UN finally got
rid of the Human Rights Commission, which had existed since 1946, and
replaced it with the UN Human Rights Council. The commission’s 60th
anniversary was so miserable and shallow that Amnesty International
criticized UN members for giving it such a chilly farewell. After all,
the commission did make at least some contribution to the cause of
human rights.

The commission’s reorganization was long overdue. It was hard to
understand how it could defend human rights with such members. I
do not even want to mention them. The new Human Rights Council will
include 47 countries instead of the commission’s 53. The UN General
Assembly will elect the council’s members by a simple majority vote.

Before, the commission was elected by the UN Economic and Social
Council (ECOSOC), which always pushed it in the wrong direction and
eventually doomed it by choosing Libya as its chairman in 2003.

In this regard the new council is not very lucky, either. The
United States, the U.S. administered Marshal Islands and Palau,
and Israel all voted against its formation. Washington is still
boycotting the new agency, and without its involvement it will not
be that effective. Publicly the United States objects that there is
no guarantee that the council will not admit nations which regularly
violate human rights. In fact, it does not want to adopt commitments
to a body that would inevitably criticize it for torture and illegal
detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the CIA’s secret prisons
for "special rendition", as well as fight against terrorism without
respect for human rights all over the world.

Russia has become a member of the council. Some 137 of the 191 UN
member states voted for it. Azerbaijan and Ukraine have also been
admitted, while other post-Soviet republics – Armenia, Georgia,
Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, and Lithuania were not elected, despite their
ardent desire to join the council. Moscow has already said that
it will use its membership of the council to raise the issues of
violations of the human rights of the Russian-speaking population in
Latvia and Estonia, glorification of Nazism, and harassment of war
veterans. However, it will continue to strongly oppose any debates
on human rights in Chechnya. Although the human rights situation
in Chechnya is satisfactory, it should be noted that almost all UN
members have this in common – they are ready to discuss human rights
violations everywhere but not at home.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the Council’s
executive body.

Even before Pillay’s official appointment, quite a few skeptics were
arguing that her service record is not befitting of this position.

First, her entire career has been in criminal law, not human rights.

Initially, she was a judge, and later on chaired the International
Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR); in 2003 she was a member of
the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Crimes are
very different from human rights. Perhaps more importantly, even
in her work as a criminal lawyer Pillay has never been seen as an
enthusiastic champion of human rights. As Kenneth Roth, executive
director of Human Rights Watch, said, let us see "how Pillay will
stand up to big powers when they violate human rights."

She faces a very difficult task, even with a budget of $150 million
a year.