In our opinion: A test for U.N. council?

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

A burned-out Revolutionary Committee office, one of Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi's organs of local government.

Associated Press

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The United Nations' Human Rights Council has long been the punch-line to a bad joke, with the bulk of its members consisting of some of the world's worst human-rights violators who are more than willing to protect each other from criticism.

If that group can assemble this week and not only strongly condemn but expel Libya, it would be its first tiny step toward legitimacy. If it can't even go that far, the United States should revert to the policy of the George W. Bush administration and boycott its own membership on the council.

President Barack Obama reversed that policy in 2009, ostensibly because he hoped that by participating on the panel the United States might have some positive influence. The Libyan crisis shouldn't, under any conceivable set of criteria, be considered a test for any council that concerns itself with human rights. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has been slaughtering his own citizens who have gathered to protest against his regime. Witnesses describe snipers shooting at unarmed people, while Gadhafi has done all he can to keep foreign media away. Libya's systemic denial of basic human rights before these protests ought to have been enough to exclude it from the council. This unconscionable escalation of violence should remove all doubt.

But if the council cannot muster the strength to expel Libya under these circumstances, the United States should conclude that its own membership is of no consequence and that it is lending its name to a charade.

Obama appointed Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe as its representative on the council. She is known as a tough critic of the United Nations, dating back to her doctoral dissertation, which cataloged the U.N.'s inability to confront human rights abuses, including genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and ethnic killings in Kosovo in 1999. Her thesis was that the United Nations should make human rights a condition for recognizing a nation's sovereignty, meaning that abuses against those rights could trigger a multinational military response.

Her stance on the subject is comforting, but the makeup of the 47-member Human Rights Council is not. The group is dominated by authoritarian and theocratic regimes. It replaced what had been a 53-member comission five years ago that included, among other abusers, Cuba, Sudan and, again, Libya. These are hardly the nations that ought to be watchdogs for international abuses.

It shouldn't take a Libyan massacre to spur the United Nations to take human rights seriously or to set legitimate criteria for membership on such a council. More importantly, it shouldn't take such a crisis to convince the United States that its participation on such a council has little influence.

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