Voting by UN Rights Commission Reveals Divisions

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - A series of votes at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva this week illustrates how politicized and polarized the body is. Even Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the Human Rights Commission "suffers from declining credibility and professionalism," and he wants to shut it down.

Voting on resolutions critical of human rights in North Korea, Cuba and Belarus reflect the gulf between Western-oriented nations and those in the developing or "non-aligned" camp, with few surprises seen as countries lined up behind or against the motions.

The regimes targeted by the resolutions, along with their allies, repeatedly attacked the U.S. and its allies, with accusations of "double standards" and "selective demonization."

Among the controversies that have dogged the commission is the fact that its current membership includes numerous countries whose human rights records are among the world's worst, according to rights groups.

They include six of the world's "most repressive regimes," in the view of the veteran rights watchdog, Freedom House - China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Members of the commission are elected by the U.N. Economic and Social Council, with nominees put forward by the U.N.'s five regional groupings - 15 from Africa, 12 from Asia, five from Eastern Europe, 11 from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 10 from Western Europe and Others (a grouping that includes the U.S., Canada and Australia.)

Annan's package of proposed U.N. reforms, which he hopes will be taken up by member states in September, includes a recommendation that the commission and its annual six-week session in Geneva be scrapped.

Instead, Annan envisages a smaller, standing human rights council, whose members are elected by a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly, and are held to high human rights standards.

In the penultimate week of what may be its last gathering, the commission voted Thursday on three country-specific resolutions.

In each case, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, and all Western and Eastern European countries (except Russia in all three, and except Armenia in the case of Belarus) voted for the motion.

And in each case, the resolution was opposed by a core comprising the same eight countries -- China, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

The eight were joined in the North Korea case by Guinea; in the Cuba motion by nine other African and Asian countries; and in the case of Belarus by Armenia and eight other African and Asian nations.

Of the eight countries opposing the three motions, all but Indonesia and Malaysia are rated "not free" by Freedom House. (Indonesia and Malaysia are rated "partly free.")

With the exception of Cuba, the 11-strong Latin American and Caribbean group either voted with the U.S., or abstained.

North Korea blames 'hostile forces'

The resolution on North Korea expressed concern about systemic, widespread and grave rights violations, including torture, public executions, arbitrary detention, and punishment of citizens repatriated by foreign governments after fleeing the country.

It passed by 30 votes to nine, with 14 abstentions.

South Korea abstained, with its envoy explaining that it had done so in consideration of "the uniqueness of inter-Korean relations."

North Korea is not a member of the commission, but its representative at the meeting lashed out at its critics.

The resolution had been fabricated by "hostile forces" and their followers, whose fundamental purpose was to overthrow North Korea's state system, said Ri Tcheul.

"Instead of condemning crimes against humanity, such as the illegal invasion of Iraq and the civilian massacres there, the commission had been reduced to changing the social systems of independent countries," a transcript of the proceedings quoted him as saying.

Ri also lashed out at Japan, saying it had lost its sense of direction in the world, and its behavior throughout the meeting had given rise to serious concerns.

'Fascist clique'

When the commission came to vote on a resolution on Cuba (see related story), the motion carried by 21 votes to 17, with 15 abstentions.

A similar voting pattern was evident, but the Latin American group was split, with Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico voting for the resolution and Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru abstaining.

Speaking before the vote, Cuba won support from China, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Russia.

China's representative said Washington's promotion of "name and shame" resolutions targeting countries had given rise to "chaos." His Zimbabwean counterpart denounced "politicization, double standards and selective demonization of states," saying that it, too, had been "the victim of collective punishment."

For his part, Cuban envoy Juan Antonio Fernandez Palacios called the U.S. "a fascist clique terrorizing the world," with no moral authority to criticize others.

Both sides saw victories in the vote outcome.

U.S. Ambassador Kevin Moley noted that the resolution passed with a larger majority than others in recent years. Last year's vote on Cuba went 22-21, with 10 abstentions.

Moley also pointed out that Saudi Arabia had for the first time voted with the U.S., and that Pakistan moved from opposing previous motions, to abstaining.

"I think it reflects the president's energy and efforts he is putting behind his push for democracy around the world," he said.

But Cuba, adding together the votes against the motion and those abstaining, declared "a moral victory."

"Despite weeks of maneuvers and pressures from Washington, a full 60 percent of the forum's member nations refused to go along with the U.S. resolution," said Periodico 26, an official Communist Party organ.

Russian bid to protect ally fails

Turning to Belarus, the commission focused on complaints about elections last October, and the implication of senior government officials in the disappearance and/or summary execution of three political opponents in 1999, and a journalist the following year.

Russia, a close ally of the former Soviet republic, tried to prevent a debate on Belarus by introducing a "no action" motion, but it failed narrowly, 23 votes to 22.

Voting on the motion criticizing Belarus, once again, approximated the patterns set in the North Korea and Cuba votes, and the resolution passed by 23 votes to 16, with 14 abstentions.

Earlier this week, the U.S., Japan and all European countries apart from Russia voted against a motion deploring a post-9/11 "campaign of defamation" of religions, especially Islam.

The resolution passed by 31 votes to 16, with five abstentions and one delegation absent.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow