Opinion

Dictators score major victory at UN Human Rights Council

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Thor Halvorssen
Founder, Human Rights Foundation
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      Thor Halvorssen

      Thor Halvorssen is a human rights advocate and film producer. Described by The New York Times as “a champion of the underdog and the powerless," he founded the New York-based <a href="http://www.thehrf.org/"> Human Rights Foundation</a>, which is devoted to liberating political prisoners and promoting civil and political rights around the world. Since its founding, HRF has secured the release of seven prisoners of conscience, provided evidence to Truth Commissions, submitted amicus briefs in major international human rights cases, and published two books on individual rights and responsibilities of the state. Mr. Halvorssen is founder and CEO of the <a href="http://www.oslofreedomforum.com/"> Oslo Freedom Forum</a>, an annual global gathering described by The Economist as a “spectacular human-rights festival ... on its way to becoming a human-rights equivalent of the Davos economic forum.” He is the Patron of the Prague-based Children’s Peace Movement, On Own Feet.

Kazakhstan is another country with a litany of human rights abuses on its government’s record. The regime controls public assembly, and it’s common for the government to deny permits for politically motivated public meetings. Authorities will often use lethal force to break up peaceful strikes and protests. The Zhanaozen massacre that occurred in December of last year was a bloodbath yet to be properly investigated. Kazakh media is subject to censorship and legal restrictions, and those with dissenting opinions have been met with harassment, libel and defamation charges and physical attacks. If this isn’t enough to prove the government’s media chokehold, consider that the main media broadcast company is owned by state agents and associates of the president’s family. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, President Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule is likely to continue; national elections are laughably fraudulent with the president-for-life winning more than 95% of the vote. Nazarbayev has stated that a one-party parliament was a “wonderful opportunity to adopt all the laws needed to speed up our country’s economic and political modernization.” The election of Kazakhstan to the council will provide the country with the means to silence not just domestic but also international criticism of Kazakh human rights violations.

Pakistan similarly fails to meet the minimal standards of a free democracy. Criticism of the government in the press is limited by the state, Internet censorship has increased and the government restricts the registration of nongovernmental organizations. Reporters Without Borders has declared Pakistan “the world’s deadliest country for journalists for the second year running,” ranking the country 151st out of 179 countries in its 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index. Insulting Islam, the prophet Mohammad or the Koran is punishable by death, and many, like Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, remain on death row for the crime of blasphemy. Some Pakistanis believe their government is complicit in the culture of intolerance and violence that allowed 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai to be shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for herself and other girls. Pakistan’s U.N. voting record is also worth examining. Pakistan has abstained from voting on the resolution for victims in North Korea, Myanmar and Syria and outright opposed the resolution for victims in Iran. What else can we expect from Pakistan being on the Human Rights Council?

The Council, which was supposed to be an improvement on the defunct Commission, is plagued by the same faults as its autocratic member governments. I learned this first-hand when I testified in Geneva earlier this year and was shut down by the servants of the Chinese, Cuban and Russian dictatorships. The United States, which just won re-election to the Council, is not free of criticism on the grounds of human rights violations. However, its government protects the right to freedom of speech and assembly, separation of powers exists and a free press holds the government in check. Most importantly, it has a demonstrable track record inside the Council of addressing its own human rights violations while being an honest ally of witnesses who come to testify at the committee.

The Council pledged to subject member countries to an entirely new and universal periodic peer review “based on objective and reliable information” of their human rights records during their terms. Yet, tyrannies like China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia continue to enjoy member status. And winning new seats, despite our best opposition, are candidates not remotely qualified for membership. The Council must not continue to act as a criticism shield for governments that fail to uphold the very standards it espouses.

The U.N. Human Rights Council has become perhaps the most effective tool for dictators to divert attention away from their own abuses. With some of the world’s most egregious rights violators newly elected, we need to ask whether the Council remains credible.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and founder and CEO of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.