Keynote Address: Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of the United Nations Human Rights Council with David Trimble

Lord David Trimble, key broker in the Good Friday agreement and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, addresses the 8th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On the culture of the Human Rights Council:

“We’ve got a Council which, while it has this Universal Periodic Review, which ought to be effective, it has now become a mutual praise society.”

“Saudi Arabia praises China and then China praises Saudi Arabia shows us the sort of scratched back procedure that goes on in that.”

We are dealing with a Council which is dominated by human rights abusers.”

On the need for change:

“We should all use whatever channels are available to us to persuade our governments to do more.”

Full Remarks

Thank you Hillel for that introduction!

Ladies and gentlemen, may I begin by apologising for my non-appearance at what time was, at ten o’clock this morning. I had been originally intended to fly in before today but there were some rather unusual things happening in our house on Monday and it became clear on Friday of last week that, I would have to be in London yesterday, which brought me relatively late to here, to this podium this afternoon.

Now, this year, is the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Commission of Human Rights, and the anniversary of the reformed Human Rights Council, and these two bodies have been the principal way in which the United Nations addresses human rights issues. As we are dealing with the 70th and the 10th anniversary of the formation, I think it’s probably appropriate to look at their performance. In looking at, I want to assess that performance, I think it’s probably good to start with the principle set out by the then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as being the core failings and the core objectives of this Council. In terms of the original Commission, Kofi said that the problems were that member countries had sought to join the body, not to strengthen human rights, but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticise others. He said further that the Commission was overly politicised and too selective in its work, and it suffered from declining professionalism and a credibility deficit.

Now, in forming this new body of the Human Rights Council, formed in 2006, the United Nations committed themselves to forming a body of members, committed to quote: “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”, that those committing gross and systematic violations of human rights could have their membership suspended, but the Council would in its regular work quote “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations”. And what was thought to be, or intended to be a powerful tool, was the provision that one-third of the members, which would then be only 16 countries, could convene urgent sessions, and it was hoped that the Council’s work would be guided by quote: “universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity”. 

So, ten years later. Looking at the way in which this Council has operated over the last ten years, sadly some consider that the Council membership has never been worse in terms of its makeup. And for assessing that make up, I’m going to refer to the standard set out by Freedom House in their categorization of countries as being free and unfree, and I’m going to boil that down to just two categorizations: free and unfree. Freedom House is a little bit more diffused in their categorization, but I think for our purposes, would do this.

And looking at the period for which records are easily available, which is from 2000 to 2016, and looking at the 47 members of Human Rights Council, we see that, in those 17 years, there was a clear majority of “unfree” countries on the Council, and there are only three years in which “free” countries constituted a majority on the Council. Now that has a very significant impact on the way in which the Council operates and how it assesses these matters. Current membership of the Council includes China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Algeria, Burundi, Congo, Qatar, UAE and Vietnam. There is quite a few human rights abusers in that membership, and that’s the difficulty on each problem we talk about a majority of “unfree” countries in the Council. We are dealing with a Council which is dominated by human rights abusers. 

Way back in 2001, speaking of the old Commission, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch said quote: “imagine a jury that includes murderers, rapists, or  police force run and large part by suspected murderers and rapists, who determine to stymie the investigation of their crimes”. And that description, sadly, applies very much to the present body as well.

In terms of resolutions, there is a very significant imbalance in it. Only 28 countries have been condemned or criticised by the Council, which means that, all 175 other countries have not actually received any criticism – and it may very well be that there should be criticism of them. Other countries which there have been no criticism they include: China, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe. But, probably even more troubling is that no resolutions have ever been proposed regarding these gross violators. It is not that no investigation has been carried out or reports made, but there haven’t even been proposals. And for this reason, the minority group of liberal democracies and here I include, obviously, ourselves: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, United States (although it’s not a member this year), really ought to have been more active on this, and not have acquiesced as they have, too often, to the way in which the Council has behaved.

There was one particular proposal in the new Council when it was in the 2006 reform, which was intended to be the saving grace of the Council. It was a provision for a Universal Periodic Review. In other words, that every country would be reviewed under this procedure, once every four years, although it would only be in a three-hour session. But it is a positive development because it does mean that there can be discussion of every country, again, even for a limited period on a limited time.

But in practice, these reviews have not been meaningful. During one session in 2009, Libya used the procedure to praise Cuba, quote: “for promoting freedom of thought and expression”, while China, in the same session, praised Saudi Arabia for its record on human rights. 

Think about it. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

In 2013, again, just to demonstrate, China again used the periodic review to praise Saudi Arabia. The next day Saudi Arabia praised China for its progress in ethnic minority regions of the political, cultural, social and economic levels. Now the way in which you see the check, without going round, Saudi Arabia praises China and then China praises Saudi Arabia shows us the sort of scratched back procedure that goes on in that.

But what really actually appalled me when I’ve looked at this, and I’m going back to the 2009 session, when China praised Saudi Arabia for its record on human rights. That was done in a formal proceeding of the United Nations, open to the public, and it should have been done on a serious basis. Could the persons who praised Saudi Arabia for the record in Human Rights, could they actually really believe what they said? I don’t believe that could be the case. 

So, what was their state of mind when they grew in this formal public process? They enter into a fantasy world of pretending that Saudi Arabia’s got a good record on women’s rights when, in fact, we know Saudi Arabia is the worst of the worst in the world on this matter. Isn’t it treating the rest of the Council and the general public with contempt, to express a view which is so patently nonsense? And I think that gives you an insight into the attitudes of the state of mind of the people involved, and of course we’re talking here about the abusers who have got in there, and have formed a majority in so many cases.

But you know, there’s a reason why they do this. We’re talking here about countries with a serious record on human rights and a flat record for abusing human rights, who ought to be the subject of inquiry and criticism, and in order to protect their countries, they take over the organisation that is there to criticise them. And this has been done, I think, very deliberately and quite cynically, so that they can then protect their country, keep it free from criticism. Of course, they have to do something, so they then have a short list of countries that they regularly criticise and then they can show that they have been doing something with regard to their remit, but of course they’re avoiding the remit completely.

So, we’ve got a Council which, while it has this Universal Periodic Review, which ought to be effective, it has now become a mutual praise society. But there are two other problems that I want to mention and I’ll try to do so briefly. 

One is the question of the people who are appointed as Special Rapporteurs for the Council. And the Council has a panel of experts, many of whom do good work, but it also has experts there, who really ought not to be there. One example is Champ Colder (may not be pronouncing this correctly) Halima Warzazi, who in 1988 she lets Saddam Hussein from being censored after he gassed Kurds in Halabja; Jean Ziegler who co-founded the Muammar Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, and Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, who has embraced the murderous rulers of Iran and Sudan. Last year the Council appointed Idris Jazairy as one of its human rights monitors, despite the fact that he’s the same man who as Algerian ambassador, personally headed a major campaign to muzzle the Council’s human rights monitors by imposing a so-called code of conduct. These people ought not to be involved in this. These people ought not to be able to manipulate the process! 

There’s another manipulation which is quite harmful also. There is a New York, a 19-member committee, appointed by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This body is entitled to grant recognition to NGOs, give them accreditations so they can then participate in Council proceedings. That’s a very useful thing, UN Watch has got accreditation, whether it would get accreditation now if it had to reapply, is another matter, but it certainly has an accreditation, and this is a good thing. But these people in New York I’m afraid, also have a tendency to perverse verdicts and perverse approaches to it.

This case was illustrated just recently, just a few weeks ago. They were dealing with a body (again my pronunciation might not be the best) Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) US-based, but operating in Vietnam and hoping to operate as a genuine legitimate human rights group, human rights NGO. They applied for accreditation, but were refused by vote of 13 to 4. Those voting, the sensor of the group, were: Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela.

You know, you could say there is a common thread running through that can’t you? The only people voting to support the group were: Greece, Israel, the United States and Uruguay. But this is not, again, something which ought not to happen and I think clearly, the United Nations, it acted way back in 2006 when it realised that existing human rights provisions were being manipulated, and were lowering the standard, the integrity, the standing of the United Nations. They must surely see that this is happening again, and it applies not just to the Council, but to this panel that I’ve mentioned and this group, here, they really ought to be, as it were, under study on this matter and they need to, UN needs to take action of this.

We too have the responsibility. The United Nations own standards are being breached, and all the criticisms that Kofi Annan made in 2005 are still valid today. Change happened then, I think to some extent because the free countries decided that it really ought to do something, and I think those free countries have to be more active on this and need to focus on this. 

How will we solve a problem that’s got there, where the United Nations has a majority of countries that are not free? How you’ll solve the problem in that context, I don’t not sure. But that’s not an excuse for not taking action, and I think we should call, we should all use whatever channels are available to us to persuade our governments to do more.

Thank you.

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