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UN (Sins of) Commission on Human Rights By: Roger Bate
TechCentral Station | Wednesday, May 04, 2005


This week it was confirmed that Zimbabwe has been one of 15 countries chosen by members of the UN's Economic and Social Council in New York to serve on the UN Commission on Human Rights. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, was dismayed:

The government of Zimbabwe has consistently disregarded the rights of its people, repressed political dissent and quashed any and all opposition. Far from earning a role as a protector of human rights, their membership renders the Commission illegitimate and irrelevant. A real and credible UN Human Rights Commission would be condemning the current regime and its activities. I deplore their selection as a Commission member, and hope that this outrageous appointment will help inspire UN members to enact extensive and meaningful reform of the Commission.

Sen. Frist is correct in every way, but he probably should have added that such disgraceful UN behavior is why it's vital that John Bolton is approved to be the US ambassador to the UN as soon as possible -- take note Sens. Voinovich, Chafee, and Hagel.

I have written extensively on the problems and atrocities with the regime of Robert Mugabe. But in the past few weeks, several Zimbabwe watchers (one from inside the country) have gently lobbied me to accept the woeful situation in Zimbabwe as the real world and deal with it accordingly. Condemning President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF is largely pointless, they say, and it's best to work with ZANU-PF - "change the regime, rather than push for unlikely regime change." They say that the best response to the latest stolen election is to work with the less odious parts of ZANU-PF.

There is little doubt that the State Department must maintain channels with anyone within ZANU-PF who creates or takes advantage of fissures in the party structure. And hopefully Mugabe will die or the regime will implode without a violent popular revolt against the daily arrests and beatings by the police, military and "youth groups." But continued accurate and passionate external criticism of the Mugabe regime is vital because most multilateral agencies wobble, and the UN in particular has repeatedly failed to do the decent thing.

For the UN to have voted Zimbabwe onto the UN Commission for Human Rights it had to ignore the following:

  • the 20,000 members of the opposition that Mugabe ordered killed in the 1980s
  • the destruction of half of the economy in the past five years to maintain power; the regular physical abuse encountered by any opposition to his regime (and that includes just saying nasty things about the leader)
  • the lack of free media
  • food allocation used as a political weapon
  • helping wage a war in the Congo so that Mugabe and his cronies make millions from conflict diamonds
  • the neglect of the entire health system so that life expectancy has dropped from 55 to 33 years in the past decade.
  • I could go on, but you get the point.

But it's often the smallest stories that grab people, so try this. In 2001 a Zimbabwean policeman with a reputation as a serial torturer was seconded to the UN police force in Kosovo. Not minding whose human rights he abused, Henry Dowa carried right on torturing and was eventually asked to leave in 2003. He is now back in Harare committing more offences against the powerless populace of Zimbabwe's capital. The human rights group, REDRESS, recently published a report on Dowa -- it makes grisly reading. According to the report, the UN acknowledged the gravity of the allegations made against Dowa. But here's the kicker:

However, after very careful consideration and in consultation with UN Headquarters, we have with regret concluded that UN…cannot pursue criminal prosecution of the officer in Kosovo…[as the UN] has a very limited number of international judges and prosecutors to whom the case would have to be referred.

The plea of "scarce resources" sits rather uncomfortably amid any noble claim to protect human rights -- what point is the UN Commission on Human Rights if it refuses to prosecute known torturers? But honoring commitments was never high on the list for the UN at any level. Or maybe it's just another case of sordid backscratching among the powerful elite at the UN. Kojo Annan, who is still under investigation for his financial dealings in the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, has also made a mint as a contractor for the construction of Harare's new International Airport. The airport is very nice, it reminded me of Stansted in England -- unnerving given that it's surrounded by abject poverty. One wonders what Mugabe has promised him and his father this time.

I hope the Senate Foreign Relations committee votes positively for John Bolton; his style is much needed there. Although he is wrong on one thing: losing ten floors of the UN building is not enough.


Roger Bate is a visiting fellow at American Enterprise Institute.


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