Why it matters when UN rights chief fails to call out worst abusers

In his maiden speech to the Human Rights Council, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein mentioned several human rights situations, with varying degrees of emergency, ranging from Syria and Iraq to Greece, Australia and Cyprus.

The references to Iraq and Syria were extensive. The reference to Russia was only in passing, about their role “to protect civilians” in relation to the conflict in Ukraine that has already left 3000 people dead. On Greece, the new High Commissioner was concerned “by the shooting of Bangladeshi strawberry pickers in Greece after they had asked for months of back pay, and the acquittal of several of the farmers involved.”

Major human rights violators like China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba were not mentioned at all by the High Commissioner. Cuba was praised for its role in sponsoring a panel session on teaching history.

So, is the speech of the High Commissioner at the start of every Human Rights Council a true barometer of the world’s emergencies? Or is it rather a selection lacking any objective methodology, such as criteria of scale or degree of rights abuse?

The guiding principles appear to be (a) lay off gross and systematic abusers if they are powerful UN countries like China and Russia, or leaders in voting blocs like Iran, Pakistan, and Cuba, and (b) criticize Western countries along with persistent violators.

One thing is certain: the failure of the High Commissioner to cite gross abusers then becomes an excuse and procedural basis for violator countries to interrupt NGOs who raise countries not mentioned in the HC’s report.

That was the case on Monday when NGOs brought up the situations in Iran, China or Egypt, all absent from the HC’s report. These governments immediately objected that it was prohibited to mention any country who wasn’t named in the HC’s update, a position validated by the Council’s Vice-President who was chairing the debate.

In other words, the inexcusable failure of the High Commissioner to call out Iran, China or Egypt in his speech — at a time when he did see fit to criticize America and Australia and EU countries — was then compounded by the fact that NGOs were thereby blocked from raising abuses by those  dictatorships.

In addition, genocidal Sudan made a similar argument in its reply to the US and the UK, rejecting any talk of deteriorating human rights in the country:

The delegation of Sudan is taking the floor in a right of reply concerning statements made by the US and UK. We have heard some allegations from both, about the deterioration of the situation of human rights in Sudan. Those are allegations that have no foundation in reality. In this respect, we would like to make reference to the report that we heard this morning [from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] and did not speak about any deterioration of the situation of human rights in the Sudan. Those allegations are only selective and politicized.

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