Ban Ki-Moon and U.N. Human Rights Council Face Critical Scrutiny

By Patrick Goodenough | January 26, 2011 | 5:15 AM EST

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the U.N. in New York on September 22, 2008 (UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

( – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday tried to shore up his human rights credentials, amid growing criticism of both his own approach towards promoting rights as well as the workings of the U.N.’s top human rights body.

On the defensive just months before the U.N. Security Council will take up discussion on whether he should serve a second term, Ban tackled the issue in remarks before the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.

He spoke on the same day as U.S. lawmakers were hearing allegations of mismanagement and political bias at the United Nations, with the HRC coming in for particularly strong criticism, accused of selectivity, distortion of its mandate, and a disproportionate obsession with Israel.

Ban himself also is in the firing line, however.

Earlier this week, a prominent rights advocacy group accused him of a reluctance to confront rights abusers in public. Human Rights Watch in its annual report said the secretary-general had at times gone “out of his way to portray oppressive governments in a positive way.”

Ban was criticized last fall for a muted response to the awarding of the 2010 Nobel peace prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. His guarded comment about the award did not include a call for Liu to be released.

In November he was again censured when during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing he chose not to raise the Lui case or any other human rights issue. His spokesman said human rights did come up in meetings with other Chinese officials.

As is the case with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, China’s support will be critical if Ban is to serve a second term.

9/11 ‘cover-up’ claims

Adding to Ban’s problems this week are calls for an HRC-appointed “expert” to be fired for endorsing 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk on his personal blog last week praised 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin, referred to an “apparent cover up” over the terror attacks and said mainstream media were “unwilling to acknowledge the well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events.”

The HRC’s 2008 appointment of Falk to a position dealing with Israel’s conduct in the disputed territories was controversial because he has a history of strong support for the Palestinian cause and has compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Nazi atrocities against European Jews.

The latest comments were brought to Ban’s attention this week by U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based organization that monitors the HRC and called for Falk to be dismissed. Replying in a letter to U.N. Watch Ban’s office condemned the remarks but noted that “special rapporteurs” like Falk are appointed by the HRC, not the secretary-general.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to reporters outside the Security Council on March 4, 2010. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice issued a statement Tuesday calling for Falk to be removed.

“The United States has in the past been critical of Mr. Falk’s one-sided and politicized approach to his work for the U.N., including his failure to condemn deliberate human rights abuses by Hamas, but these blog comments are in another category altogether,” she said.

“In my view, Mr. Falk’s latest commentary is so noxious that it should finally be plain to all that he should no longer continue in his position on behalf of the U.N.”

In his speech at the HRC, Ban addressed the issue without identifying Falk by name.

“Recently, a special rapporteur suggested there was an ‘apparent cover-up’ in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States,” he told the council. “I want to tell you, clearly and directly, I condemn this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. It is preposterous – an affront to the memory of the more than 3,000 people who died in that tragic terrorist attack.”

Ban also noted that the HRC decides whether special rapporteurs “continue in their jobs,” and said while their independence should not be limited “we cannot condone irresponsible behavior that undermines the Human Rights Council and the United Nations.”

‘Rogues’ gallery’

When the HRC appointed Falk – reportedly from more than 180 potential candidates – Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) – then ranking member, now chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – said the U.N. body appeared to be “intent on marginalizing voices of reason and moderation.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday held hearings on the U.N., during which Ros-Lehtinen in a prepared statement described the HRC as “a rogues’ gallery dominated by human rights violators.”

The hearing also heard from U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer, who reported that:

-- A majority of the council’s 47 members fail to meet the criteria set by democracy watchdog Freedom House for “free” countries. Current members include China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia.

-- Since its establishment in 2006 the council has passed no resolutions for victims of rights abuses in China, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe.

-- Roughly 70 percent of condemnatory resolutions have targeted on country, Israel; out of ten “special sessions” on issues relating to countries, six dealt with Israel.

-- The council has eliminated investigative mandates on four problem countries – Cuba, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Belarus – and has added no new country mandates.

In his speech in Geneva, Ban addressed some of the criticism aimed at the council.

“For this Human Rights Council to fulfill its mandate, it must be seen as impartial, and fair,” he said. “It cannot be seen as a place ruled by bias or special interests. It cannot be a place that targets some countries, yet ignores others. It cannot be a place where some members overlook the human rights violations of others so as to avoid scrutiny themselves.”

The Obama administration joined the HRC in 2009, arguing that it could more effectively help to improve it from within. Its predecessor did not run for a council seat and eventually stopped taking part in sessions even in an observer capacity.

Critics point out that a key problem is a systematic one: At any one time, only seven of the council’s 47 seats are held by members of the Western group, but 26 seats – a majority – are occupied by Asian and African countries, many of which restrict political freedoms and civil liberties. The remainder are designated for countries in Latin America (eight seats) and Eastern Europe (six seats).

There are also no binding entry criteria, and a number of countries with poor rights records have been voted onto the HRC by large majorities during annual elections by the U.N. General Assembly.

Currently, 18 out of the 47 seats are held by members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the bloc of mostly Muslim-majority states that has used the HRC both to target Israel and to promote its controversial “defamation of religion” campaign.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow