Last Wednesday, the Geneva-based HRC adopted a report on Libya’s human rights record that was first drafted during the Gaddafi era.
Despite the fact that the report incorporated expressions of praise for that regime by governments including Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Syria, North Korea and “Palestine,” neither the U.S. nor any other council member objected to the report’s adoption – despite having been given the opportunity to do so by the HRC’s president.
The report was the outcome of Libya’s “universal periodic review” (UPR), a procedure in which every member of the U.N. has its human rights record evaluated once every four years.
Its adoption drew criticism from some veteran observers of the U.N.
“The council's review of the Gaddafi regime was a fraud, and should have been declared a mistrial,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based monitoring group.
The main effect, he said, “was to falsely praise Gaddafi’s oppressive regime, insult his victims, and harm the reputation of the U.N.”
Claudia Rosett, journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was scathing.
“It seems our diplomats at the Human Rights Council dare not speak the truth, even when faced with a stack of lies about a dead dictator who terrorized and murdered untold numbers of his own countrymen, as well as some of ours,” she wrote in a blog post.
“Is America’s position at the Human Rights Council so utterly precarious that our diplomats dare not demand the U.N. tell the truth about such things?”
On Thursday, the pattern was repeated when the HRC adopted the UPR reports for Syria and Zimbabwe. Aspects of Syria’s record were commended by Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Burma, Belarus and Sudan.
Among those praising the Mugabe regime’s human rights efforts were Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Burma, Iran, China, Russia and Venezuela. Some also called for a lifting of sanctions.
Following criticism about the Libya UPR adoption, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Geneva issued a statement on Friday.
“During the two-and-a-half year cycle that has just concluded, many abusive governments including both the Gaddafi and Assad regimes, shamelessly presented fictional accounts of the state of human rights in their countries,” it said.
“These UPR sessions also included forceful criticisms from participating states who spoke the truth in response. The final reports adopted this week by the Human Rights Council document both sides of this exchange, spotlighting who chose to speak out honestly and strongly in defense of human rights, and who did not,” the mission statement continued.
“Adoption of a UPR report by the Council merely signifies that it has been entered for the record. It in no way constitutes endorsement by the Human Rights Council of any statements in that report.”
Friday marked the ending of the first round of the UPR, meaning that every country has now gone through the process once.
The UPR mechanism was touted as a landmark reform when the HRC was established in 2006. In practice, regimes with poor rights records typically rally around each other, expressing support and solidarity and fending off criticism from democracies, as seen last week in the case of Libya, Syria and Zimbabwe.
On occasion, such countries have also stacked the speaker’s list in an apparent bid to dominate the discussion (time constraints mean not all countries can be accommodated). When the U.S. had its UPR, critics of America crowded the top of the list of speakers, with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran in the top three positions, and Russia, Nicaragua, North Korea, China and Libya also high up the list.
When Venezuela’s UPR was wrapped up last week, the top ten countries on the list of speakers included allies such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Burma.
The Obama administration, which frequently points to the HRC as a highlight of its policy of deepening engagement with the U.N., characterizes the UPR process as a largely successful innovation.
In its statement, the U.S. Mission called it “a significant tool for the protection and promotion of human rights.”
“We join with other delegations in recognizing the overall success of the Universal Periodic Review process, particularly in light of the universal participation we achieved in the first round,” U.S. envoy John Mariz told the council during a general debate on the UPR process on Friday.
“We are especially encouraged that in nearly every country, the UPR has motivated increasing numbers of human rights advocates and stakeholders, who have engaged their governments, contributed their input, and come to Geneva to directly engage in the process,” he said.
Mariz also pointed to some abuses of the process, however, saying that Libya and Syria had, for example, presented “a fictional account of the state of human rights in those countries.”
“An essential antidote to this deplorable behavior by an abusive government, and the only way to mitigate its damage to the UPR, is the willingness of participating states to speak the truth in response,” he said.
Mariz also pointed to what he called the “assiduous engineering of the speakers’ list to reflect regional or bloc support” during the first UPR round. He noted that new procedures have now been agreed upon in a bid to avoid that from happening in the future.
“We hope that the randomly determined order of speakers will contribute to the overall credibility of the UPR.”