As the Gaddafi Regime Kills Its Own Citizens, No Word From U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | February 22, 2011 | 4:45 AM EST

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte, Libya, in September 2007. (U.N. Photo by Evan Schneider)

( – The violent crushing of anti-government protests in Libya has prompted Western condemnation, but almost a week after it began, no country has requested that the U.N. Human Rights Council convene an emergency “special session” on the crisis.

While several U.N. human rights experts have spoken out against the crackdown in Libya, the Geneva-based HRC – the U.N.’s leading human rights watchdog – remains silent.

Its inaction contrasts sharply with the way the 47-member HRC has responded to situations in and around Israel: Islamic states and their allies secured a total of six special sessions of the council focused on Israel between July 2006 and October 2009.

Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is a member of the HRC, a body which since its establishment in 2006 has drawn criticism for the presence and conduct of countries that are themselves widely accused of rights violations.

Reversing its predecessor’s policy of shunning the council, the Obama administration joined it in 2009, acknowledging its imperfections but arguing that it could push most effectively for improvements from within.

Seventy human rights advocacy groups from around the world in a joint appeal Monday called for the HRC urgently to convene a special session to “strongly condemn, and demand an immediate end to, Libya’s massacre of its own citizens.”

The session should also send a fact-finding mission to Libya and push for Libya’s suspension from the HRC, they said. The resolution that created the council allows suspension of a member state that “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights,” although doing so requires the support of a two-thirds majority in the U.N. General Assembly.

No member has yet been suspended.

Any HRC member state can initiate a request for an HRC special session in response to a particularly serious situation anywhere in the world, by getting the support of 15 other countries, or one-third of the membership. In the case of the crisis in Libya, so far none has done so.

A Libyan protester holds a defaced poster of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, during a protest in front of the Libyan embassy in Cairo on Monday Feb. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday the U.S. was “working urgently with friends and partners around the world” to convey to the Libyan government the message that “this unacceptable bloodshed” must stop immediately.

Apart from the U.S., other democracies on the council include Japan, South Korea, 10 countries in Europe, five in Latin America and two in Africa. The are outnumbered by Islamic states and their non-Muslim allies.

The 70 rights groups appealing for the HRC to meet urgently also called for the U.N. Security Council to be convened to respond to the emergency.

“We urge you to send a clear message that, collectively, the international community, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council will not be bystanders to these mass atrocities,” they said. “The credibility of the United Nations – and many innocent lives – are at stake.”

HRC’s focus on  Israel continues

The Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House consistently rates Libya as one of the least free countries in the world.

Although the resolution establishing the HRC stipulated that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” Libya won a seat easily when the U.N. General Assembly voted by secret ballot last May. Of the 188 countries that voted, 155 backed its candidacy.

The current membership also includes others widely accused of poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan. Bahrain, which has seen seven people killed during a week of anti-government protests, is also a member of the HRC.

Apart from concern about the presence of right-violating countries on the council, a key reason given by the Bush administration for not cooperating with it was what it said was a disproportionate fixation with Israel.

Of 14 special sessions held by the HRC since 2006, six related to the Middle East and concluded with resolutions condemning Israel.

Men carry a coffin at Al-Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, Libya on Monday, Feb. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Alaguri)

Of the other eight, one each dealt with situations in Burma, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Cote d’Ivoire, and the remaining three with the Haiti earthquake, the world food crisis and the global economic situation.

The Geneva-based non-governmental organization U.N. Watch, which monitors the HRC, noted in a report assessing the council’s activities last year that no special sessions had been called in response to the situation in Iran, despite the violent clampdown on opposition supporters following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.

Similarly, the council “failed to adopt any resolution, special session or investigative mandate for Belarus, China, Cuba, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe – all on Freedom House’s list of the 20 world’s worst abusers,” said the report.

Next week the HRC begins a regular, month-long session.

Among items on the agenda are follow-ups to two earlier special sessions on Israel as well as consideration of a report on steps taken since an earlier fact-finding mission, the controversial 2009 Goldstone inquiry that accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza.

One agenda item does deal with Libya, although not with the current crisis. Libya during a previous session held its universal periodic review (UPR) – a three-hour “interactive dialogue” that every U.N. member state is expected to go through every four years.

The upcoming regular session will finalize Libya’s UPR report (along with those of 15 other reviewed countries, including the U.S.).

The UPR process is regarded as one of the most important mechanisms of the HRC, ensuring that every country at the U.N. must regularly defend its record before the international community.

In practice, however, democracies’ criticisms of repressive regimes have largely been eclipsed by expressions of praise and appreciation from those regimes’ allies, as was the case when Iran and China went through their reviews.

Libya’s UPR last November followed a similar pattern.

After Libya’s delegates presented a report stating that citizens enjoy freedom of expression and other freedoms in line with principles enshrined in Gaddafi’s “Great Green Document,” other delegates lined up to praise Tripoli, among them those from Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Bahrain, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and “Palestine.”

Although there were also critical evaluations by the U.S., European countries and Israel, the supportive interventions outnumbered the critical ones by roughly two to one.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow