A teacher, who has not been paid for more than three years, instructs students at a school on World Teachers’ Day, on Oct. 5, 2021, in Sana’a, Yemen. (PHOTO BY MOHAMMED HAMOUD/GETTY IMAGES)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2021, pp. 23-25
United Nations Report
By Ian Williams
ACROSS THE MIDDLE EAST, one can see why fainter hearts despair of the United Nations while other more urbane observers make allowances for its inherent weaknesses. However, increasingly the failure to do anything about its weaknesses pushes every observer into despair. Ten or fifteen years ago, these Washington Report U.N. columns lamented the stranglehold of the U.S. over the organization and the perennial logjam in the Security Council as the U.S. and Russia vetoed and counter-vetoed essential measures. For many observers, the answer was to expand the Security Council and make it “more representative.”
Now, in a way, the reformers have won. There is a jackal pack of hangers on, albeit not formally enrolled in the Council, with an indirect paw on the steering wheel—and more concerningly, a foot on the brake. Unsurprisingly this has not made for a more efficient or effective United Nations.
We saw this most distressingly when the U.N. Human Rights Council members succumbed to some combination of browbeating and bribery from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in October to thwart the continuation of an U.N. investigation into human rights violations in Yemen.
This point needs belaboring. On anyone’s objective reckoning, despite fierce competition, Yemen is one of the most distressful countries in the world, where the four horsepersons of Apocalypse have been staging their own lethal rodeo. There can be no doubt that there are human rights violations there, which impelled the U.N. Human Rights Council to order an investigation. There is little doubt that both sides (in fact all three sides; it’s complicated) are in some measure guilty. But, for example, only one side, the Saudis and Emiratis, are bombing civilians and, incidentally, a UNESCO world heritage site in Sana’a.
Even their Western allies, such as Britain, who have been supplying and training Abrahamic allies’ murderous forces, could not provide excuses for scuppering the investigation. But the Saudis, with an extra layer of diplomatic armor from their part in the accords with Israel, do not have to worry about domestic courts, international law and human rights lobbies. Shamefully, they have just succeeded in cancelling the probe.
As Human Rights Watch had said, “Member states bowing to pressure to end the mandate when it is still urgently needed would be a stain on the credibility of the Council and a slap in the face to victims.” As the dark joke in the U.N. has it, if the vote were on a show of hands, the wrists of those who voted “no” would probably be sporting Gold Rolexes.
Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Somalia, Venezuela, Indonesia, Libya, the Philippines, Russia, Sudan and, shamefully, India and Pakistan acting in uncommon harmony all voted “no” on continuing the probe, while Nepal, Japan, Namibia and others failed to have the courage of their lack of principles and abstained. Even more pusillanimous, Ukraine just disappeared for the vote!
We are accustomed to Palestine votes evoking hypocrisy at the highest level, as delegations weigh U.S. and Israeli pressure against the principles of self-determination and humanitarian law to which they pay lip service. In the case of Yemen, one can only guess what combination of outright bribes and fear of financial retaliation from the Saudis led to the votes, along with the intriguing spectacle of the heirs of the Warsaw Pact —Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia—who have between them demonstrated strong international solidarity with their bloc of mutual support for authoritarian impunity.
The real question is what these countries are doing on the Council at all. They do have a shared concern for human rights in that they all violate them at home, and have now moved to international concern—as in the “you watch my back and I’ll watch yours” variety.
It demonstrates that the system for choosing Human Rights Council members has broken down. The Council took its shape in almost a by-gone era of concern for human rights. The Clinton administration had supported the U.N. (up to a point) of course and actively lobbied for human rights—when it suited. The reforms called for every country’s record to be periodically reviewed, which reduced the ability of supportive blocs to head off scrutiny. Human rights supporters could also count on some support from delegations like South Africa to try to secure actual elections that would take into consideration the behavior of the candidates in the regional blocs.
They were somewhat successful for a while—even knocking the U.S. off the Council. But the U.S. soon gave up the fight while diehard support for Israel, Guantanamo and similar issues tarnished Washington’s shining armor as a champion of human rights. The “elections” for the seats have become a tragi-farce in which the regional blocs, even the West Europeans, make sure that there are only nominations for the number of seats available. So, there are no contested elections and a primary qualification for nomination appears to be that the candidate country has a dubious human rights record that it wants to hide.
All members vote for all the seats, but candidates must come from the regional blocs they represent. In the beginning, there was effective pressure to ensure competitive elections, for which candidates had to prove their suitability. Then the insidious U.N. pressure for consensus and “Buggins’ Turn” principles allied with arm twisting and garotting by the Saudi purse-strings took over and the number of candidates was whittled down to the number of vacancies.
Even the last bastion, the Western European seats, succumbed ironically to ensure that the perennially vulnerable U.S. was seated since even reforming members saw little value in the Council if the U.S. were not in it. Certainly the Trump administration did nothing to encourage competitive elections for a Council. But other members are culpable as well.
Accordingly, October’s Human Rights Council elections saw Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Benin and Somalia for the African group; Qatar, UAE, Kazakhstan, India and Malaysia for the Asian group; Argentina, Paraguay and Honduras for the Latin America and the Caribbean group; Luxembourg, Finland and the United States for the Western group; and Lithuania and Montenegro for the Eastern Europe group take their seats.
Few of them are paragons of human rights. And while we can welcome the U.S.’ resumption of participation, let us just say that police impunity for murders and Guantanamo are hardly recommendations. The top vote was 189 for Benin, and much deserved bottom vote of 144 went to Eritrea—as much for its habit of quarreling with neighbors as for its human rights record, I suspect. The U.S. came in next to bottom with 168 votes. But pathetically few states heeded Human Rights Watch’s call to refrain from voting for human rights violators. Back to the drawing board for the Human Rights Council, but who has the political and moral authority to force changes? There is no activist secretary general like Kofi Annan to push a reform agenda and the U.S.’ moral authority is deep in the Dead Sea with its Israeli protégé.
U.N. Watch is a “nonprofit organization dedicated to holding the United Nations accountable to its founding principles.” After it was pointed out (in here and other places) that its only concerns seemed to be countering criticism of Israel, it has recently weighed in on other issues where the U.N. has failed human rights, in an effort to restore credibility. However, it cannot escape its monomania. In 2019, it took time to inveigh (correctly) against the Saudi accession to the Council. I took the occasion of this year’s Saudi triumph in suppressing the investigation about Yemen to scour their website for any mention of this latest assault on liberty and reason.
There is nothing there, which could lead one to suppose that the Kingdom is bathed in the blood of the lamb, cleansed of all sin by the Abrahamic Accords. One would look hard at U.N. Watch to see any criticism of Morocco, whether at home or in the Occupied Western Sahara. It is plain to see that standing by Israel gives a “get out of criticism free card” for any country.
With amusing irony, U.N. Watch also tells home truths about the Palestinian Authority, what one might call the authoritarian wing of the national movement, without mentioning that much of that abuse of power is aimed at more vociferous Palestinian resistance to Israel, which is of course vying to see how much of the Palestinian opposition it can lock up.
In the early years of the Council, Kofi Annan and his team actively lobbied delegations to ensure some degree of competition, but as so often on human rights issues, particularly where the Saudis are concerned, there is a deafening silence from the U.N. Secretariat. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is honored, far more often in the breach, than the observance.
And that brings us to another core principle of the post-war United Nations, “The inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force,” or the abandonment of the old principle of the right of conquest. It is, of course, no accident that this principle was only ratified after World War II had rewritten many boundaries by force! But it is what denies Israel legal title to the West Bank and the Golan Heights—and which denied Saddam Hussain title to Kuwait.
On Israel’s behalf, the U.S. still tests this principle to destruction. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently reasserted Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, and U.S. responses did not rebut him, but simply mentioned the current incapacity of Damascus. In the West Bank, the U.S. prevaricates on whether or not the territories are occupied or disputed. And to show the global effects, the Biden administration has yet to walk back former President Trump’s acquiescence in the Moroccan landgrab. Showing more adherence to the rule of law, the European Courts over-ruled the EU bureaucrats who allowed Morocco to pocket the proceeds of Western Sahara’s fisheries.
On the other hand, in annexers’ solidarity, Israel proudly announced the sale of drones to Morocco, clearly intended for use against Polisario.
The U.N. has many fine features and noble aspirations, but one does wonder when the politicians and the leaders of the organization will bother to activate them or, after decades of taming and training by kleptocrats and genocides, even whether they can be activated.
U.N. correspondent Ian Williams is the author of UN told: the Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War (available from Middle East Books and More).