The UN on Libya and Iran: Making a Mockery of Human Rights (Print Version)
by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, March
15, 2011, No 287.

Two weeks ago, on March 1, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly made a show of suspending Libya from its Human Rights Council. That august body expressed "its deep concern about the situation in that country in the wake of Muammar Al-Qadhafi's violent crackdown on anti-Government protestors." Better late than never, I guess.

But just three days later, the UN appointed none other than Iran to its Commission for the Status of Women. In an added twist of bad timing, it did so just four days before the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. The presence of such uncivilized, authoritarian regimes on the UN's councils and commissions is an insult to human dignity. What were they thinking? And who are "they" anyway?

A Brief History of the United Nations

Founded in 1945 in the wake of WWII, the United Nations' stated purposes include "maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights." It replaced the League of Nations, which had failed spectacularly in its mission "to promote international co-operation and to achieve international peace and security."

Has the UN done a better job than its predecessor at keeping the peace? Counterfactual thought experiments being what they are, needless to say, opinions differ. Supporters argue that the UN's General Assembly provides a forum for the countries of the world to discuss and resolve their differences without having to resort to violence, and that tens of thousands of UN boots on the ground do help maintain ceasefires around the world.

Critics counter that the UN's meagre successes (Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990) are far outweighed by its failures. The Rwandan horror is only the most vivid example in recent memory, with the ongoing mess in Darfur threatening to be just as bad if not worse. Then there's the infamous debacle at Srebrenica, "a massacre the United Nations actually facilitated by gathering the victims together, disarming them, and then refusing pleas for the return of their arms as their predators closed in," as Joshua Muravchik, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, puts it. And with Security Council vetoes held by the governments of Russia and China, themselves still authoritarian rogues, is it any wonder that the institution's results over the years have been less than inspiring?

Human Rights and Wrongs

Is there any conceivable justification for Libya winning a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in the first place? Not according to the 37 human rights organizations that raised their voices in protest when it happened last year. They described Libyan leader Muammar Al-Qadhafi's regime as "one of the world's most brutal and longest-running tyrannies" and said that he "belongs in jail, not on the world's highest human rights body."

Qadhafi has ruled Libya with an iron fist for over four decades. He has maintained a surveillance system with "a proportion of informants on par with Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Kim Jong Il's North Korea," with his death squads routinely murdering political dissidents. He has also been a sponsor of international terrorism, including the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988―for which UN sanctions were imposed in 1992!

Nonetheless, and despite the aforementioned cries of protest from rights groups, Libya won 155 of 192 votes in a General Assembly secret ballot last year. How did it manage this trick? It ran unopposed for its region's seat, in a ballot process designed to practically guarantee horse-trading among regional powers. Which leads us quite nicely to the issue of Iran.

Some of My Best Servants Are Women!

Though it was only just appointed this month, Iran was actually elected to the Commission on the Status of Women―you guessed it, unopposed―last April. The acclamation came just days after Iran withdrew its bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council―a seat that ended up going to Libya.

It also came just days after one of Iran's senior clerics blamed earthquakes on scantily-clad women. Iranian police routinely harass or arrest women not covered head-to-toe, or deemed to be wearing too much makeup. In 2003, just eight years ago, "Iranian state thugs raped, tortured and killed Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi because she photographed a Tehran prison." Last year, Iran sentenced a woman to death by stoning for the crime of adultery.

Is there any hope for an organization like the UN that lends its albeit tattered legitimacy to despotic regimes in places like Libya and Iran? An organization over which semi-civilized authoritarians in Russia and China have a veto power? An organization that is more likely to ignore atrocities―or exacerbate them―than it is to improve matters in any measurable way? The ascension of Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women is a sick joke, and the UN itself has more often than not been a joke. The ongoing struggles for peace, human rights, and equality for women throughout the world would be helped, not harmed, if we consigned this anachronistic institution to the dustbin of history.

* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.