Move to Suspend Libya Seen As Critical Test for U.N. Human Rights Council

By Patrick Goodenough | February 25, 2011 | 5:18 AM EST

At the Human Rights Council and other U.N. forums, countries with poor human rights records – like those ruled by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, photographed here in Venezuela on Sept. 28, 2009 – frequently shield each other from criticism. (AP Photo)

(Update: The Human Rights Council on Friday passed a resolution condemning Libya’s violent crackdown on protestors and recommending that it be suspended from the HRC. Unusually, the text was adopted without a vote.  The matter must go to the U.N. General Assembly, where a two-thirds vote is required for a council member to be suspended.)

( – On the eve of an emergency U.N. Human Rights Council meeting on the crisis in Libya, the European Union has significantly toughened a draft resolution, raising for the first time the prospect of challenging Libya’s membership on the council.

Still, the new text prepared ahead of the meeting does not call directly for Libya’s removal, but rather recommends that the U.N. General Assembly give “consideration” to holding a vote on suspending it.

Friday’s “special session” of the Geneva-based HRC may be the biggest test yet of the value of the top U.N. human rights body – and of the Obama administration’s decision to embrace it.

The administration said Thursday it supported Libya’s removal from the HRC.

“The Libyan government has violated the rights of its people,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told a press briefing. “Taking this step continues the increased isolation that the Libyan government is facing.”

There is no provision for a council member to be expelled outright. A member “that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights” may be suspended, but the chances of that actually happening in Libya’s case remain slim.

First the E.U.-drafted resolution would have to pass Friday in the 47-seat council, where Islamic states and their customary allies led by China, Russia and Cuba, hold a majority of seats.

Assuming that hurdle is cleared, the second one is even bigger: Two-thirds of voting and present countries in the General Assembly would have to vote to suspend Libya.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) together account for 124 countries out of the total 192 U.N. member states. Most members of both blocs have traditionally closed ranks against any perceived “interference in domestic affairs” by Western-led democracies.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in session in Geneva. (U.N. Photo by Jess Hoffman)

Discussions in Geneva Thursday provided a glimpse of the divisions and how they may affect the first hurdle – getting the resolution through the HRC.

Speaking for the African group – which alone comprises 13 of the 47 members – Nigeria said the suspension call was premature.

Cuba and Saudi Arabia, leading voices in the NAM and OIC respectively, concurred. Some of the 13 African members are also members of the OIC and all are members of NAM. In addition to those, the OIC and NAM together account for another 15 members of the council.

Furthermore Russia and China, both influential HRC members, consistently oppose what they view as outside interference in the affairs of states – a stance underlined by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during meetings in Brussels on Thursday.

Even though some OIC members (notably Jordan, the Maldives and Qatar), and some Latin American members of NAM (notably Chile) may support the resolution, reaching the required 24 votes will be an uphill battle.

‘Let the chips fall where they may’

Western diplomats at the U.N. frequently dilute the wording of resolutions in a bid to get the broadest possible support; by toughening the wording of this resolution, the drafters have likely made its passage even more difficult.

Even so, a close observer and leading critic of the HRC said early Friday that of the two options – a stronger resolution that does not pass or a watered-down one than does – he favored the former.

“We opt for the stronger text,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, told

“Let the chips fall where they may, but the free world must speak with moral clarity,” he said.

“If the governments of China, Cuba and the African Group object to the U.N. condemning a mass murderer, then their own citizens, and the people of the world, will have been done a service to know this.”

U.N. Watch has led a campaign by non-governmental organizations to have Libya removed from the HRC.

E.U. members of the council amended the draft after coming under fire from a coalition of these NGOs, and were also prodded by some governments unhappy with the earlier version.

The strengthened draft resolution includes a reference to the fact that all members of the HRC “have an obligation to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.”

As has reported, this “obligation” – although included in the U.N. resolution that established the HRC in 2006 – has not stopped the General Assembly from voting onto the council, usually by large majorities, at least 18 countries whose human rights records draw frequent and widespread criticism.

The resolution also says the HRC “decides to urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry … to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Libya … with the view to ensuring that those responsible are held accountable.”

It also inserts stronger language like the phrases “indiscriminate armed attacks against civilians” and “the need to hold to account those responsible for attacks, including forces under government control, on civilians.”

Neuer welcomed the new draft resolution, saying that the original one had “ignored the fact that Libya’s council membership is a moral obscenity that must be rectified immediately.

“After our objections were widely published, the EU thankfully revised their draft.”

Although necessary, Friday’s special HRC session is in itself far from a sufficient international response to the violence in Libya, Neuer said.

“We need to see concrete international action, like a no-fly zone. The U.N. Security Council must take immediate action on the ground to stop the bloodbath. Meanwhile, all it has done is adopt a press statement, and a relatively mild one at that.”

The U.S. will be represented at Friday’s HRC meeting by its permanent representative on the body, Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe.

President Obama is also dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Geneva, but she will take part in the high-level segment opening a regular, month-long session of the council, which begins on Monday.

Obama said Wednesday Clinton would “hold consultations with her counterparts on events throughout the region and continue to ensure that we join with the international community to speak with one voice to the government and the people of Libya.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow