The UN’s new Human Rights Council (HRC) has definitely begun badly. The special meeting on Lebanon on 11 August in Geneva was further illustration of this, in case there was any need after the chaotic inaugural session at the end of June and the equally depressing spectacle a few days later in the form of an initial special session on the Palestinian situation requested by the group of Arab states and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
Although hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel had been raging for nearly a month, these countries waited for a green light from the hastily-convened OIC special session on 3 August in Malaysia before demanding an HRC special session on Lebanon. The 16 countries that supported this request included China, Cuba and Russia, as a third of the council’s 47 members are needed to convene a special session.
The outcome was a foregone conclusion. The resolution presented by a score of IOC countries that criticised only Israel was passed by 27 votes to 11 with 8 abstentions, and in the absence of Djibouti. Plus or minus one or two votes, the score was identical to the votes on the HRC’s previous two - equally one-sided - resolutions on the Palestinian situation.
It was a repeat of the worst moments of the defunct Human Rights Commission, whose shortcomings and excesses the new council is supposed to address, with an automatic, blocking majority imposing its will and doing as it pleases. What’s more, the council, which is an offshoot of the General Assembly, had not hesitated to hold a special session on the same day that the Security Council was examining the situation in Lebanon and was poised to adopt resolution 1701 calling for a cessation of hostilities.
This was a flagrant breach of article 12 of the UN Charter, which says: “While the Security Council is exercising in respect of any dispute or situation the functions assigned to it in the present Charter, the General Assembly shall not make any recommendation with regard to that dispute or situation unless the Security Council so requests.”
The HRC meanwhile indulged in sterile excesses without any relation to the reality on the ground. Rejecting the least debate on this serious issue and refusing to consider the substance of any amendments, the resolution’s promoters turned the special session into a series of monologues and declamations in complete isolation from the outside world. The resolution condemned Israel unilaterally without the least reference to Hezbollah attacks on civilian targets in northern Israel. At most, a paragraph added by Pakistan to the initial draft urged all the parties involved to respect the rules of international humanitarian law.
In the only positive point, the resolution said the council was “concerned at the targeting of communication and media networks in Lebanon.” It was decided to urgently dispatch a commission of enquiry to investigate “the systematic targeting and killing of civilians by Israel in Lebanon.” The resolution took absolutely no account of Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour’s call for an investigation not only into the Israeli air strikes but also into the firing of rockets into northern Israel and the “repeated allegations of the use of human shields by Hezbollah.”
Explaining its vote against the resolution, Finland said on behalf of the European Union that it regretted that the text dealt with the concerns of only one of the parties. France deplored that fact that it had not been possible to discuss the content of the resolution, in order to make it more even-handed: “We hoped the Council’s creation would be a new departure for the treatment of human rights issues, and we do not accept that a resolution should be presented on a basis of take it or leave it.”
From the outset, Canada and the United States - which were there simply as observers - rejected any consideration of the resolution as “pointless and counter-productive” inasmuch as it could undermine the Security Council’s efforts. Four African countries (Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana and Nigeria) abstained as they felt the HRC did not show the same interest in Africa’s recurring tragedies such as Darfur.
The UN’s new-style Human Rights Council is doing its utmost to perpetuate the excesses that sank the Human Rights Commission, taking the same perverse road of exploiting human rights for political ends. Already weakened by growing divisions, the council is falling into the UN routine of taking every opportunity to get bogged down in rhetoric and generate piles of useless documents. It may already be time to say: “Too bad.”
Jean-Claude Buhrer, journalist, for Reporters Without Borders