Voice

U.N. Human Rights Council Condemns Actual Human Rights Abusers!

Or, in praise of small victories.

If you're inclined to think that "U.N. Human Rights Council" is a contradiction in terms -- and really, who isn't? -- you should look at a clip of council president Laura Dupuy Lasserre, a Uruguayan, warning a senior Bahraini official not to retaliate against activists who came to Geneva to testify about Bahrain's dreadful human rights record. "We reject such allegations," says an indignant Salah bin Ali Mohammed Abdulrahman. "We have entered a new phase in the history of our country." Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Belarus, those champions of human rights, leap to his defense, and administer a dressing-down to the council president. And Dupuy Lasserre stands her ground. "I wish to renew my expression of confidence that there will be no kind of problem involved with this," she concludes.

This is the same U.N. Human Rights Council that President George W. Bush refused to join on the grounds that it would be packed with human rights abusers who viewed Israel as the only nation worthy of criticism. His successor Barack Obama reversed that decision as part of his commitment to multilateral institutions, a move conservatives criticized, and still criticize, as naïve.

It's true that the UNHCR remains fixated on Israel; the council has a standing agenda item requiring an annual report on Israel's human rights record in the West Bank. But that's not the whole truth. The council has responded to the Arab Spring with resolutions sharply criticizing the regimes in Libya and Syria; as I write, the council is in special session to respond to the massacre in the Syrian villages of al-Houla. I'm surprised -- and critics on the right should be very surprised -- at the extent to which the United States has been able to make the Human Rights Council more effective by joining it and intensely engaging in its work, which is precisely what Obama predicted what happen.

"Until the U.S. joined," says Paula G. Schriefer, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, "victories were counted in the number of times you could stave off disaster." Schriefer would know: Until earlier this year she worked at the human rights organization Freedom House, where she spent years writing dismal report cards on the performance of the council and its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Most notoriously, after the council held a special session in 2009 on Sri Lanka's savage war against Tamil insurgents, it issued a resolution congratulating Colombo for the campaign, despite the death of tens of thousands of civilians. This past March, however, despite overwhelming pressure from the Sri Lankan government, the council voted to require Sri Lanka to investigate those deaths, and ordered the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights to report on its compliance. "It's becoming the new normal that the council does the right thing," Schriefer says.

Admonishing human rights abusers like Bahrain, Syria or Sri Lanka will not, of course, change their behavior. In the end, only internal pressure can compel an oppressive  regime to do so. But these public dramas help empower internal critics: the Bahrain Center for Human Rights exulted at the pasting government officials took in Geneva. And states cannot dismiss the council as a tool of the West; many of the toughest criticisms have come from emerging democracies, including Brazil and Mexico. India, long a protector of authoritarian allies, voted for the Sri Lanka resolution.

Indeed, the council's effectiveness reflects the growing importance of non-Western rights-respecting countries. In years past, even Third World democracies could be counted on to toe the line laid down by states like Cuba, which dominated internal debate in the so-called Group of 77 developing nations. That's no longer true, and democracies like Brazil take offense at the claim that human rights are a peculiarly Western preoccupation. These states are increasingly eager to stand up for their democratic principles in international fora (though they continue to treat Israel as the one democracy worthy of perpetual condemnation).

At the same time, the U.S. role has been vital. Obama appointed as ambassador Eileen Donahoe, a major Democratic donor (though also a scholar at Stanford University). But Donahoe has surprised human rights activists who saw her as a classic political appointee. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, describes Donahoe as "the best diplomat the U.S. has ever had in Geneva." Donahoe has worked closely with developing-word democracies as well as with Western allies to pass country-specific resolutions, to restore a special rapporteur on Iran and the like.

One of Donahoe's more obscure achievements is changing the procedure known as Universal Periodic Review, which is what brought the Bahraini delegation to Geneva. When the council was established to replace the disgraced Human Rights Commission, one of its major selling points was that every country in the world would have its human rights record subjected to a peer-review process. Countries would draw up a report, and states would have the right to question their claims and recommend changes. But authoritarian regimes gamed the system by prevailing on their friends to line up in advance -- sleeping on the steps, according to one human rights official -- to pack the list of questioners, lob softballs, and seek vacuous "reforms." Even the on-the-level reviews were marked by timidity and diplomatic politesse. Tunisia was applauded as a model of development.

This year, with all 192 countries having undergone review, and a new round set to begin, the rules were revised so that all members could intervene. As it happened, Bahrain was the first to go, last week. The delegation presented a bland report on issues like access to health care and child protection, and observed that events of the last year had "enabled Bahrain to realize significant human rights reforms and achievements in favour of citizens." Bahrain, of course, has been accused of jailing and torturing regime opponents and imprisoning medical personnel who seek to treat injured activists. And states, mainly though not wholly Western, raised all of these concerns, and called on Bahrain to change laws and accede to treaties in order to ensure the protection of rights.  The Bahrainis, of course, demurred: "The head of the delegation reiterated that there were no detainees of freedom of expression and opinion..." But they were handed 176 recommendations to which they will have to respond before the next session, four years hence.

The confrontation with Dupuy Lasserre arose because Bahraini human rights activists who came to Geneva to testify to the harsh practices they endured were being labeled as traitors and Iranian agents in the country's press. Dupuy Lasserre spoke up publicly to remind the official delegation of the obligation to protect those who provide information to the council. She then read out the names of each individual who had done so -- "so you can carry out your followup." Abdulrahman, Bahrain's human rights minister, denied that the activists were endangered, and added ominously, "I would like to know which party communicated that information to you." It has since been reported that the group is to be summoned to the Ministry of Interior for interrogation. There is certainly no reason to feel confident that Dupuy Lasserre's willingness to put the Bahrainis on notice will deter them from subjecting human rights activists to the kind of intimidation and mistreatment that has become routine over the last year.

So yes, in the end it's only words. If the Obama administration, with all its leverage, can't make the Bahrain regime stop targeting the peaceful opposition, neither can Universal Periodic Review or Ms. Dupuy Lasserre. But words do matter; if they didn't, all that Israel-bashing wouldn't raise such hackles. The Human Rights Council can increase the reputational cost for bad behavior, and point a way toward better behavior for those willing to change. The Obama administration has gotten something valuable in exchange for a very modest investment.

ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP/GettyImages

Terms of Engagement

Enough Talking, Kofi

It’s time for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance in Syria; now we must accept that diplomacy has failed.

Fourteen years ago, Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, embarked on a desperate mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country. Miraculously, he succeeded. And for his pains he was awoken in the middle of the night and browbeaten by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who worried that he had caved to Saddam. When he returned to New York he was mocked for saying that he could "do business" with the Iraqi dictator. Serving as interlocutor-with-evil is a thankless job.

Annan is of course in the midst of another such mission, this time as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where he has presented a six-point plan to President Bashar al-Assad in  the hopes of ending the  mass killing of civilians. In recent weeks, Assad had made Annan look like a naïve devotee of peace-at-any-price by first accepting the plannd then systematically trampling on its terms. And then, last Friday, government forces and local militias systematically slaughtered more than 100 civilians, most of them women and children, in Houla, a group of villages in the province of Homs, proving beyond any doubt that Assad has been cynically using Annan to buy time for his own plan, which is to kill and terrorize his opponents. The time has come to thank Kofi Annan for his services and send him back home to Geneva.

I have known Kofi Annan for as long time, and it is true that he has a temperament peculiarly well-suited to situations of powerlessness. He is a gentleman who speaks ill of no one, and thinks ill of only a few. He does not wear his dignity on his sleeve, or anywhere visible at all. He does not upset apple carts, a habit which may have contributed to his inactivity in the face of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda when he was the head of U.N. peacekeeping. It's the part of him I admire least.

But for a U.N. diplomat, powerlessness is a fact of life; it's much easier to represent a superpower. In the summer of 2004, I watched Annan sit quietly in a blazing hot office in Darfur while Sudanese officials piled one inane lie on top of another. Didn't he know they were jerking him around? Of course he did, he told me wearily. But what was the point of delivering threats? "I don't," he said, "see anybody rushing in with troops."

And that's the real point. Albright and the Clinton administration let Annan go to Baghdad when they saw how little appetite there was in their own base for airstrikes against Iraq (though they launched a few strikes later that year when the deal Annan negotiated fell apart). And years later, Annan tried to speak reason to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because the Security Council wasn't prepared to punish him for mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder in Darfur.

Annan finds himself in the same predicament in Syria today. Arriving in Damascus three days after Houla, Annan condemned the “tragic incident,” and said that his “message of peace” was intended “not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.” Annan knows perfectly well that responsibility for Houla lies with the regime, but he also knows that Russia, a key player on the U.N. Security Council, insists on blaming both sides for the violence.  And, of course, that even Assad’s toughest critics in the West won’t soon be rushing in with troops or airstrikes.

Annan is no pacifist. In the late 1990s, he championed the doctrine that came to be known as "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that when states fail to act to stop atrocities, other states have an obligation to do so. But Annan does believe that sometime atrocities can be halted, or prevented, with diplomacy rather than with force. He and others did just that when they mediated between the opposing sides after a disputed election in Kenya in late 2008 led rival tribes to slaughter one another. That was an effort worth making; so was his high-wire act in Baghdad in 1998; so was the mission to Damascus. But it no longer is.

When I asked Ahmad Fawzi, a former U.N. official who serves as the spokesman for the mission in Syria, why Annan was still shuttling between capitals even as Assad's forces continued to shell civilians, he said, "It's the only game in town at the moment." Fawzi made only the most modest claims for the mission's success: Violence goes down while inspectors occupy a given space, though often returns to previous levels once they leave; civilians might "start having faith in the presence of the observers." But it was still better than the alternative -- even more killing.

Houla has vividly demonstrated how very little the 260 or so observers can do to prevent violence where they are not physically present, but the mission grinds on, with another 40 observers still to be added to the force. Annan has returned to Damascus, Fawzi says, because "he feels the time is now ripe to sit down with the president and assess where we are."

Of course, that's not true either. The Syrian opposition, military and political, won't relent until Assad leaves, but Assad almost certainly won't leave unless he feels that the only alternative is death. And that moment is still very far away. The Obama administration understands this well, but views all the available alternatives as even worse than the current one -- talking while Assad keeps killing. I was at a recent lunch with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who responded to a volley of questions about humanitarian corridors, airstrikes, and the like by saying, "There is a risk it ends in more violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it's a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is."

The question is: When do you stop pursuing this low-probability game? When, if at all, do the risks of action become greater than the risks of inaction? The international community kept talking with the Serbs until the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 finally provoked a NATO bombing campaign. In Sudan, as in Rwanda, nothing happened until it was too late to make much of a difference. Annan knows this history all too well; it is his history. "He's been there before," says Fawzi, "and he will know when the time has come to pull the plug." Or maybe he won't. The United States and the EU have allowed Annan to decide when and whether his mission has ceased to be useful; but Annan’s faith in diplomacy may wind up serving Assad’s interests more than those of the Syrian people.

It has now become very hard to imagine any solution to the Syria crisis which is not a terrible one. Though fewer people are dying per day than was true earlier this year, when security forces were besieging the town of Homs, the violent scenario to which Rice alluded is already a reality. According to recent reports, the rebels have begun to receive significant quantities of weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as well as training and equipment from Turkey. The Obama administration has admitted only to supplying communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance, but is said to be clandestinely helping direct arms to rebels forces. The White House, that is, appears to be reluctantly accepting the inevitability of civil war.

Fawzi says that no Plan B is on offer, but the fact is that an impromptu Plan B appears to be taking shape: Turkey will provide its territory for the training and organization of the Free Syrian Army, the United States will provide logistical and command-and-control assistance, and Gulf states will supply the hardware. Everyone, including Annan and the U.N., will labor mightily to keep the Syrian National Council, the political organ of the opposition, from collapsing into utter chaos, as it now threatens to do, and to persuade the SNC, the rebel army, and the Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria to work together.

We mustn't delude ourselves about Plan B's likelihood of success. The air war that destroyed the Qaddafi regime in Libya was relatively swift and thoroughly decisive, but Libya now teeters on the edge of anarchy. Syria hardly looks more encouraging. If the rebels step up the pace of attacks, Assad is likely to respond with yet more violence, possibly provoking the Gotterdammerung of all-out sectarian war. And as foreign jihadists increasingly infiltrate the rebel forces, and pervert their goals, the chances of creating an unarguably better Syria than the one that existed before the uprising will recede. Syria poses such a terrible problem because it is not about finding the political will to do the right thing, but rather trying to find some way of doing more good than harm.

But the time has come -- or perhaps has very nearly come -- for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance; now we must accept that diplomacy has failed.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect events in Syria over the weekend.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images