Rights: US 'Moral Authority' Rests on Big Stick

UNITED NATIONS - When the 192-member U.N. General Assembly meets in mid-May to elect 14 new members to the 47-nation Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC), the United States will be conspicuous by its absence and missing from the ballot.

Justifying its decision, Washington says it will skip the elections because the HRC has lost its "credibility" for focusing primarily on one country -- Israel -- and ignoring "human rights abusers" such as Myanmar (Burma), Iran, Zimbabwe and North Korea.

But U.N. diplomats, human rights activists and legal experts point out that the administration of President George W. Bush has no legitimate right to sit in judgment over the transgressions of others while its own "abusive behaviour" is not under scrutiny by any international body.

"The United States does not have a shred of moral authority left; its only authority is the big stick," Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told IPS.

He argued that the U.S. claim it is staying away from the elections because the Council has lost its credibility is "bogus".

"It is the United States that has lost its credibility, and that is why it would never be elected. Ask almost anyone in the world whether the U.S. engages in torture -- sadly the answer will be affirmative," he added.

When the United States ran for a seat back in May 2001, it was ousted from the former 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission for the first time since its creation in 1947.

The Commission was replaced by a Council last year. But Washington also bypassed the first election, possibly fearing defeat. This is the second consecutive year it has avoided elections to the U.N.'s supreme human rights body.

An Asian diplomat told IPS that the resentment against Washington was so intense at that time that many of the member states, including U.S. allies, who publicly pledged their votes reneged on their promises privately -- and got away with it in a secret ballot voting.

The U.S. refusal to stand for elections has triggered sharp criticism from at least one U.S. Congressman -- Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California -- who described the decision as "an act of unparalleled defeatism".

Lantos went one step further by accusing the Bush administration of surrendering the HRC to "a cabal of military juntas, single-party states and tin-pot dictators" who will retain "their death grip on the world's human rights machinery."

The U.S. State Department said last month that the HRC is not a "credible body" because it refused to pass strictures on some of the world's major "human rights abusers", including Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran and North Korea.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, says the United States is certainly not the only country which has engaged in violations of international humanitarian law to an extent that raises questions regarding the appropriateness of sitting on the U.N.'s Human Rights Council.

Indeed, there are quite a few countries that are even worse, he noted, particularly regarding the treatment of their own citizens.

"Still, there is perhaps no other country that is so self-righteous about lecturing governments it doesn't like about their human rights abuses while simultaneously defending its own human rights abuses of foreign nationals as well as providing large-scale security assistance to allied regimes which engage in even more egregious human rights abuses," Zunes told IPS.

Even if Lantos' criticism may have hit some of the right targets, says a senior U.N. official, he is certainly not unaware of the firestorm of criticism triggered by human rights abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay -- along with the U.S. violation of Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.

Ratner said the Bush administration has never been willing to subject its practices to scrutiny by any international body -- not the United Nations; not the Human Rights Council; not the International Court of Justice at the Hague; and not the International Criminal Court.

"It is unwilling to do so because it fears that the truth will be exposed: the U.S. is in violation of fundamental human rights principles and the world knows it: it tortures, it disappears people, it disregards Geneva, it holds people indefinitely without charges," Ratner told IPS.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, said that Washington's decision has far less to do with the claimed reason -- that the Council has "failed" -- but rather is rooted in fear that the U.S. would once again (as it did in pre-9/11 2001) lose the election and thus fail to win a seat on the Council.

She pointed out that human rights has always been the "other side" of the U.N.'s recognition of national sovereignty as the primary basis for the global organisation.

"Claims of conflict between the supposed absolutism of sovereignty of the Charter and the commitment to individual rights inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have long been the basis for U.S. (and other countries') posturing as great defenders of human rights in other countries, while expressing outrage that any international organisation or any other country might criticise the rampant abuses inside its own borders," Bennis told IPS.

That conflict has increased as U.S. human rights violations -- which used to focus on the death penalty, racism and discrimination, denial of economic rights, etc. -- have now focused laser-sharp on the individual and globally-televised horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the "extraordinary rendition" torture programme, and other torture in the context of the so-called "war on terror".

As a result, "the holier-than-thou stand above all you lesser countries" attitude of U.S. diplomats at the United Nations and in Washington has become almost a caricature of itself, said Bennis, author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power".

The Council, she said, may have at least a chance to develop into a more coherent, grounded component of the U.N. system, capable in the future of handling the delicate compromises between real sovereignty and real human rights.

In an unusually long recent editorial titled "The Must-Do List", the New York Times lashed out at the Bush administration for its continued abuse of power and violations of civil liberties, described as the founding principles of U.S. democracy.

The exhaustive charges against Washington included brutality towards prisoners; the denial of their human rights; the institutionalisation of such denials; unlawful spying on U.S. citizens; and the denial of legal challenges in courts.

The editorial also called on the Bush administration to restore habeas corpus; ban torture; close prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); account for "ghost prisoners" held in secret camps; ban secret evidence; and respect the right to counsel.

Meanwhile, as of last week, there were 15 countries vying for 14 vacant seats in the HRC. The African group had four candidates (Angola, Egypt, Madagascar and South Africa) for four seats; the Asian Group four candidates (India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Qatar) for four seats; the East European states had two (Belarus and Slovenia) for two seats; and the Latin American and Caribbean Group had two (Bolivia and Nicaragua) for two seats.

Only the "Western European and Other States" group had three candidates (Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands) for two seats, triggering a contested vote, which is scheduled to take place May 17.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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