(1st Add: Includes comments from Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk.)
(CNSNews.com) - The United Nations' Human Rights Council has elected onto a panel of special advisors a left-wing Swiss sociologist with a record of sympathizing with the Castro and Mugabe regimes and criticizing the United States and Israel.
And in another move that drew fire, the U.N.'s top rights body also appointed an American academic strongly critical of Israel to a post dealing with Israel's conduct in the territories claimed by the Palestinians.
During its less than two years in existence, the Human Rights Council has itself been criticized -- by Western governments and two U.N. secretary-generals among others -- for focusing disproportionately on Israel, while paying relatively little attention to pressing rights issues elsewhere.
Meeting in Geneva on Wednesday, the council elected Swiss national Jean Ziegler as one of 18 members of an expert "advisory committee" that functions as the body's think tank.
Forty of the council's 47 members voted in favor of Ziegler, who for the past eight years has served as a U.N. "special rapporteur on the right to food." (The U.N. has around 20 such reporter-investigators, each focused on a particular country situation or on a theme such as racism or extreme poverty.)
Advisory committee members serve three-year terms and are eligible for re-election once. According to U.N. documents, requirements for the posts include "recognized competence and experience in the field of human rights; high moral standing; and independence and impartiality."
Among those who urged the Swiss government to rescind its nomination of Ziegler was U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a letter sent earlier this week, Ros-Lehtinen accused Ziegler of "unyielding support of many of the world's most vicious dictators," and noted that a 2005 comment comparing Israelis to concentration camp guards had brought a reprimand from then U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan.
Others who called on the Swiss government to withdraw the nomination included a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Canadian lawmaker and human rights advocate professor Irwin Cotler, and former Cuban political prisoner Angel De Fana, who now heads a U.S.-based organization focusing on political prisoners in his homeland.
'US must demand reform'
In another decision on Wednesday, the council appointed Princeton international law scholar Richard Falk as the U.N.'s new "special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967." He reportedly was picked from more than 180 potential candidates.
Falk, a critic of Bush administration foreign policies who has written approvingly of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, provoked controversy last summer with an article that compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Nazi atrocities against European Jews.
Israeli ambassador Itzhak Levanon, whose country is not a member of the council, told the body that a man who had accused Israel of "genocidal tendencies" could not possibly be considered impartial, a job requirement stipulated in reform documents adopted by the council last year.
Canadian envoy Marius Grinius dissociated his country from the decision, saying Canada doubted that Falk would meet the required standard of impartiality.
In a statement reacting to both developments, Ros-Lehtinen said the election of Ziegler and appointment of Falk "again demonstrate the bias and hypocrisy of the U.N.'s human rights organizations."
The Florida Republican called Ziegler "an avowed defender of dictators and apologist for Islamist extremist groups," pointing to his statements defending Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as well as remarks interpreted as sympathetic towards Hizballah, the anti-U.S., anti-Israel radical Shiite group in Lebanon.
"Mr. Ziegler's consistent anti-Israel rhetoric adds yet another voice to the chorus of U.N. representatives who would rather denounce Israel than condemn Islamist extremism," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen also decried Falk's appointment, and said the council appeared to be "intent on marginalizing voices of reason and moderation."
"This sad occasion reinforces the need for the United States and other responsible nations to demand fundamental reform of the United Nations."
Ziegler previously has been criticized by Washington. When in 2003 the Human Rights Council's predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), considered a motion to extend his "right to food" role, the U.S. alone voted against it, accusing him of irresponsible statements and of abusing his mandate.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, has been a longstanding critic of Ziegler, noting among other things his support for French author Roger Garaudy, a convert to Islam who has denied the Holocaust.
U.N. Watch monitored Wednesday's proceedings, and the group's executive director, Hillel Neuer, commented afterwards that "even within the benighted U.N. Human Rights council, today was a dark day for human rights."
Invited to respond to the allegations of partiality, Falk -- who is professor emeritus of international law and practice at Princeton -- said that during his long professional career he had done his best to be objective when dealing with relating international law to foreign policy and human rights disputes.
?This has produced some controversial assessments of sensitive issues, but I believe that their publication has helped give some voice to neglected views. I have often felt that the Palestinian side of the story is told in a manner that is biased and misleading.?
Falk stressed that he has never supported ?violence against civilian targets, regardless of provocation.?
?I have expressed views on the future of Israel and Palestine that are motivated by beliefs in the conditions that will bring peace between the two peoples,? he said. ?I do not believe that a one-sided and unbalanced endorsement of Israel?s approach to peace and security is in the interest of either the United States or Israel itself.?
Attempts to reach Ziegler for comment were unsuccessful. Ziegler has previously accused Neuer and U.N. Watch of mounting "a campaign of defamation" against him, and said allegations of anti-Semitism were ironic, given his past efforts to expose Swiss banks' financial cooperation with the Nazis.
Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Guillaume Scheurer was quoted by Swiss national radio Wednesday as saying Ziegler had "an excellent knowledge of all economic, social and cultural rights" and "immense independence."
In one of his last acts under his "right to food" mandate, Ziegler earlier this month delivered a report to the Human Rights Council on a visit he paid to Cuba last October. He said the U.S. "illegal blockade" of the island was the main obstacle to Cubans getting access to food.
As part of a broader process aimed at reforming the U.N., the Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the widely discredited UNCHR, whose sessions frequently saw rights-abusing nations close ranks to block Western criticism.
Since then the council, whose current members include China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, has held seven regular and six special sessions, with a large proportion of its deliberations dedicated to Israel.
Last year, it controversially decided to end mandates for special rapporteurs on human rights situations in Cuba as well as Belarus.
This week, China, backed by its allies, succeeded in blocking efforts to have the council debate the recent clampdown on dissent in Tibet where around 140 people have been killed since March 10, according to Tibet's government-in-exile.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last November, U.S. envoy Robert Hagen criticized the council for what he called a "relentless focus on Israel," the elimination of the mandates relating to Cuba and Belarus, and a "reluctance to address principal violators and violations of human rights."
The U.S. decided against standing for council membership in 2006 and again last year.
Islamic States Chide UN Head for Criticizing Human Rights Body (July 26, 2007)
In Rebuke to UN, US Will Not Seek Seat on Rights Council (March 7, 2007)
African and Islamic Nations Shield Sudan at UN Rights Meeting (Dec. 13, 2006)
UN Rights Expert Has Controversial Track Record (April 26, 2006)
Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.