U.N. Human Rights Council Gets a New Ceiling – and More Controversy

By Patrick Goodenough | November 18, 2008 | 5:10 AM EST

Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo works on the ceiling of a conference room at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva. (Photo: ONUART Foundation)

(CNSNews.com) – The United Nations on Tuesday will unveil a multi-million dollar ceiling decoration, paid for in part by the Spanish government’s budget for overseas aid.
The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero contributed almost $14 million of taxpayers’ money to the project, including nearly $1 million earmarked for African aid. Other funding came from private Spanish donors.
Miquel Barcelo, a world-renowned Spanish abstract artist, has been working with a team of 20 assistants for more than a year on the 15,000-square-foot ceiling of a conference hall in Geneva, which will become the permanent home of the often-controversial Human Rights Council.
Zapatero will join U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Spain’s King Juan Carlos and 750 guests for the unveiling of the ceiling. Barcelo says it is intended to resemble a grotto, featuring thousands of “stalactites” colored with more than 100 tons of paint with pigments from around the world.
The Spanish government calls it one of the U.N.’s most significant artworks – some are even calling it “the Sistine Chapel for the 21st century” – but at home, debate has erupted over what critics view as inappropriate use of development aid.
Gonzalo Robles, a member of the conservative opposition Popular Party responsible for development, called the use of the funds “immoral” and possibly illegal, asking how many wells could have been dug, vaccines provided or African children helped with the money.
The Madrid daily newspaper ABC said in an editorial the government had to provide “fuller and better explanations” for the project while another paper, El Mundo, said “Barcelo’s dome will be a work of art but will not improve the life of one poor person.”

Spain’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Javier Garrigues, fueled the debate by saying that providing funding for the Human Rights Council headquarters clearly fell into the development aid category.

(Photo: ONUART Foundation)

“Everything that is related to human rights is development aid, and in that sense, what is done in Geneva in the framework of the U.N. is the best example of multilateralism,” he said.
In Madrid, the government said the development aid fund was not used only for poor countries but also for promoting “international solidarity.”
“This project is a new way of doing diplomacy and foreign policy,” said Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Sergei Orzhonikidze, director general of the U.N. Office at Geneva, expressed the U.N.’s gratitude to Spain for the ceiling project, saying the donation was in response to a standing invitation to member countries to refurbish the Palais des Nations, the building used by the U.N. for its European headquarters.
“This room will become part of the collective heritage of the international community,” he told a press conference, saying it was “an illustration of Spain’s firm commitment to the values, principles and mission of the United Nations.”
“Together, the renovation and the artwork are most likely the largest donation of its kind ever to the United Nations,” Orzhonikidze said.
‘Self-congratulatory ceremonies’
The renovated conference room will be known as the Chamber for Human Rights and the Alliance of Civilizations – a reference to a project launched by Spain and Turkey in 2006 to improve ties between Islam and the West.
Ironically, the Human Rights Council, created in 2006, has become an arena for tensions between Islamic and Western nations, mainly because the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which currently controls one-third of the council’s seats, has been using it to promote a campaign aimed at outlawing the “defamation” of Islam.

(Photo: ONUART Foundation)

The council has also been dogged by criticism about a disproportionate focus on Israel, while other situations get scant attention.
The council also includes countries with poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Cuba and Pakistan.
Citing procedural weaknesses and abuses in practice, the Bush administration has pointedly not stood for election.
“Instead of meeting for self-congratulatory ceremonies, the council should do its job and stop ignoring human rights violations around the world,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based non-governmental organization U.N. Watch, said Tuesday.
Neuer said the council had, in its two years of existence, systematically undermined the cause of human rights.
It had also “eviscerated the U.N.’s few existing tools that work,” he said, citing the council’s gradual elimination of human rights monitoring in Belarus, Cuba, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sudan’s Darfur.
Not only had genocide in Sudan been ignored, Neuer said, but the monitor of the atrocities in that country was also “on the chopping block,” with the mandate set to expire next March.
Noting that 80 percent of country censures by the council had targeted Israel, he said “repressive regimes support these Arab-sponsored and one-sided texts to deflect attention from their own abuses.”
“Never in the history of international human rights has one of its own institutions inflicted so much damage.”
In a letter Tuesday to Ban and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Neuer and Paula Schriefer of the Washington-based human rights watchdog Freedom House urged them to call on the council to convene a special session immediately to discuss the crisis in the DRC.
“As you gather today with world leaders to celebrate the new chamber of the U.N. Human Rights Council, we urge you to take advantage of this moment to turn the international spotlight toward the human rights catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” they wrote.
“Mass displacement, killings and sexual violence – involving hundreds of thousands of victims, if not more – require an urgent response by the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow