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The Final Straw By: Robert T. McLean
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 06, 2006

If the uninspiring record of the United Nations Human Rights Commission was not already enough, two more instances have proven the body beyond repair.  On February 14 the commission issued a report calling for the closure of the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay.  This comes on the heals of the long overdue effort to pass genuine reform on the troubled organization.  However, any hope for reform was dashed with the demand by the Organization of the Islamic Conference that all efforts must include amendments outlawing blasphemy.  If the Human Rights Commission cannot get it right when it is under unprecedented scrutiny, how will it ever become a responsible and functional body?

The greatest flaw of the of the report on Guantanamo Bay was that it was premised on a fundamental disagreement with the United States over whether the United States is currently engaged in an armed conflict.  With the UN Commission on Human Rights maintaining that the United States is at a state of peace, it refuses recognize the burdens placed on the United States in leading the War on Terror.  Without this basic understanding, the commission’s assertions appear futile. 

Take for example the report’s attempts to substantiate “torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”  Here its is noted that there is ample “evidence indicating that policies aimed at forcing detainees to cooperate such as withholding of clothes or of hygienic products, permanent light in cells, [and] no talking.”  Hold it right there.  No talking?  What is this, study hall?  These are some of the most dangerous and perverse individuals in the world and we are supposed to worry about providing them ample opportunity to chat?


Further “evidence” from the report addresses what happened to some detainees after they left Guantanamo.  The accusation is that the United States transports these terrorists “to countries where they are at serious risk of torture.”  How in the world does a body that was chaired by Libya in 2003 and includes the likes of China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe have the impudence to make such a claim? 


Perhaps the most shameful aspect of the report is its illustration of the detention practices at Guantanamo as religiously intolerant.  Besides the tired accusations that the United States taxpayer provided Korans may have been mishandled “intentionally or unintentionally” an entirety of five times, the commission also expresses deep apprehension about politically incorrect language when dealing with the terrorist detainees.  The report states: “there are also concerns about reports that the United States Government has, either implicitly or explicitly, encouraged or tolerated the association between Islam and terrorism, for example, by interrogating detainees on the extent of their faith in Islamic teachings.”  The fact that the drafters of this report fail to see any connection between Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism that is carried out under its name it extremely disconcerting. 


Kevin Edward Moley, the Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, issued a statement in response that was released with the report on February 14.  In his rebuttal he deals extensively with the issue of force-feeding detainees that engage in hunger strikes.  While the commission’s report charged that “some of the methods used for force feeding definitely amount to torture,” Moley responded that health care professionals oversaw all such practices.  He also reasonably points out that “it is bewildering to the United States Government that its practice of preserving the life and health of detainees is roundly condemned by the Special Rapporteurs and is presented as a violation of their human rights.” 


This is all best explained by the intentions of the drafters.  As Moley expressed in response to the commission’s work, the “report is presented as set of conclusions – it selectively includes only those factual assertions needed to support those conclusions and ignores other facts that would undermine those conclusions.”  In fact, when the United States extended an invitation to three of the Rapporteurs to visit Guantanamo the drafters declined citing the prohibition of conducting “private interviews or visits with detainees.” 


Interesting enough – although certainly unsurprising – was the majority of the media’s reporting on this issue.  The Associated Press reported that three of the members of the report “were invited last year, but refused to go in November after being told they could not interview detainees.”  It is worth noting that the word “private” was omitted from the press reporting regarding the questioning of detainees.   Private and non-private meetings with detainees are quite different and the refusal to grant interviews would have been discriminatory towards the commission’s drafters, while private meetings are generally not even permitted for members the United States Congress. According to the United States Government’s response, they “offered the Special Rapporteurs unprecedented access to Guantanamo, similar to that which we provide U.S. congressional delegations.”


Predictably, the world media has taken the report as further proof that the United States is deeply flawed in the manner in which it is fighting the War on Terror.  Take for example the Spanish daily El Pais.  This center-left national publication called Guantanamo a “beacon of shame” and a “showcase of the excesses of the so-called ‘war on terror.’”  The proposed solution mirrors that which is presented in the Human Rights Commission’s report as it calls for immediate trials of the detainees or their release.  Clearly the report has been counterproductive to the United States counter-terrorism efforts as it increasingly beckons the call for the closure of an essential element at the Bush administration’s disposal and further damages the reputation of the United States abroad. 


The report on Guantanamo Bay should have been the final straw to the Bush administration and responsible members of Congress as the UN Commission on Human Rights is in desperate need of comprehensive and immediate reform.  Unfortunately, reform efforts were dealt a major setback last week as the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) called for any reform effort to include provisions that note “the defamation of religions or prophets is not in accordance with free speech.”  Fortunately much of the West strongly disagrees with including such an amendment.  Unfortunately, this will amount to just one more obstacle in pushing through substantial reform.


Serious efforts have been made in Washington – and even the Europeans are beginning to come around – to create a smaller human rights body that would be more representative of states that actually have a respectable record on the matter.  U.S. Ambassador John Bolton called the commission a “discredited mechanism.”  Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Richard G. Lugar, explained to the UN General Assembly on February 7: “The membership criteria of the new council must ensure that those elected to it observe human rights and abide by the rule of law.”  Regrettably, however, the OIC holdup may just be the perfect exit strategy for repressive regimes from having to support improvements in the UN Human Rights Commission.


Belarus, Cuba, and Zimbabwe oppose any membership criteria.  Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Gaisenok told the Moscow news agency Interfax last September: “If the structure of what is meant to be the organization’s main body is reduced, this will give countries using the human rights theme to achieve their own political goals enormous opportunities for manipulation.”  Clearly this is a reference to the United States and its allies, and world powers such as Russia and China seem to agree.  Russia – the Belarusian protector state – has warned against “haste in reforming the UN Commission on human rights” in their main government news agency Itar-Tass, while China’s official news outlet Xinhua noted that the country “disagrees with the classification of countries into ‘democratic’ and ‘non-democratic’ nations.”


Internal differences within the commission have made reform efforts increasingly difficult and it appears that the only way for genuine reform to transpire would be for the United States to begin withholding funds until certain demands are met.  This has been proposed and passed in the House of Representatives, but the word out of the Senate is that the State Department is reluctant to withhold any funds to the UN, especially with the Iranian issue due to come up in the Security Council in March.   Nonetheless, the absence of real reform is unacceptable. 


If there was any debate in Washington as to whether the UN Commission on Human Rights needed substantial reform, that debate should now be over.  The organization has displayed itself to be both ineffective and hostile to American interests.  The reporting on Guantanamo Bay displays just how counterproductive the body has become.  While reform efforts will be difficult, they must remain a priority.  As Ambassador Bolton said earlier this year, “If we don’t get real change, that’s not acceptable.”  Let’s hope the Ambassador sticks to his word.


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Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.

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