Sin City: The Uses and Misuses of Human Rights Discourse, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Oct


No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.   George Eliot

The only sin is mediocrity.  Martha Graham

Talking about pollution, nobody’s holy.  Toba Beta

There exists a limit to the force even the most powerful may apply without destroying themselves. Judging this limit is the true artistry of government.  Frank Herbert

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T. S. Eliot

In looking over the quotations above, it might appear as though I have pushed the calendar to prepare for the annual Advent letter several weeks early.   Indeed, these weekly posts have long sought to blur the lines that many others actively seek to maintain, blending responsibilities to policy and traits of personal character that tend to make that policy more inclusive, more urgent and more attentive to context.

Moreover, this is a birthday week for the UN (for me as well), a time to celebrate accomplishments, but also to acknowledge that the clock that continues to tick on our opportunities to realize our promise, to make amends for inattentive mis-steps and outright wrongdoing, to straighten out still-crooked structures and, to the best of our ability, apply our “true artistry” to the global problems and human needs that forever yearn for our attention.

Of all the UN functions in this busy month, among the greatest drama and intrigue takes place in the General Assembly’s 3rd Committee which is devoted in large measure to the promotion and protection of human rights.   Such is a noble venture albeit one replete with issues and controversies that have both captivated our interns and won well-deserved respect for the patience of the Chair, Luxembourg’s Ambassador Braun.

In this time of budget constraints, widespread violations of international law, and growing skepticism about the value of multilateral institutions, the promotion and protection of human rights would seem to be an increasingly difficult sell.  We live in a world now where too many states and individuals “dare” the international community to challenge their behavior, dare them to insist on the upholding of norms that constitute the primary “glue” that holds institutions like the UN together.

At the same time, our understanding of the intersectional and often complex web of rights obligations that binds us is also increasing.  From discrimination against persons with albinism or physical limitations to girls subject to sexual slavery; from victims of terrorism and its responses to journalists and environmental defenders threatened for simply doing their jobs; the multiple facets of human rights inquiry and implementation pose both  challenges and strains.  Much too often, we humans maintain our not-so-clever march to incarnate the “evils we make no effort to escape from” and this puts enormous pressure on our too-often-disregarded and largely-underfunded human rights mechanisms.

There are issues with pursuing human rights to be sure, including the tendency to prioritize the rights concerns of in-groups to the relative neglect of out-group concerns.  I do know people in this world (including diplomats and UN officials) who maintain a sense of general equilibrium regarding the scope and pursuit their own and others’ rights, but in fairness many of these people are not directly subject to abuses themselves.  It is, indeed, a high bar to expect fairness of application when people and communities are under direct attack, including and especially at the hands of their own “legitimate” governments.

It is also seems increasingly difficult for states themselves to listen to each other on rights abuses, especially when they feel “lectured to” by states with their own unacknowledged human rights limitations.  Indeed, there is a considerable amount of self-righteousness that rears its unfortunate head in the Third Committee chamber on many rights issues, but especially when it comes to “country –specific” reporting on states such as Myanmar, Iran, Burundi and Israel (on the Palestinians).  This exercise, more than the thematic obligations of most Independent Experts and Rapporteurs authorized in Geneva by the Human Rights Council, tempts states to make political points under the guise of upholding human rights standards, an often-strained exercise which certainly qualifies as doing the “right deed for the wrong reason.”

States present in the Third Committee – and especially those under direct examination and their supporters — routinely resort to “constitutional defenses” of their behavior, the spurious notion that if a right is guaranteed in a national constitution that it must, de facto, be guaranteed in practice.   Several states also resort to the “principled position” that country-specific discussions should not take place in the Third Committee at all, that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in Geneva is the best place for states to receive recommendation and guidance on their human rights responsibilities based on dialogue, mutual respect and a bit of “shadow reporting” from NGOs and activists on the ground.  We concur with that point, with the caveats that the UPR process does not generally lend itself to the levels of intensive rights investigations which the Rapporteurs and (especially) the Independent Experts are mandated (and trained) to conduct.  Moreover, we and others have noted that these “principled positions” on country-specific mandates magically disappear altogether when Israel’s rights violations are in focus.

The UN is clearly and unapologetically a state-centric system, one which privileges (and at times even justifies) state prerogatives, even in situations where such states are clearly in violation of UN Charter norms.  It is also a system which too often, as noted by several Rapporteurs this week, hasn’t the “stomach” to hold the most egregious abusers to account.  And, as our system of human rights faces fresh allegations questioning its inherent biases and limitations, based in part on policy disconnects that persist between Geneva and New York, attempts to manage and overcome differences between what one delegation referred to as the “goodies and baddies” take on intensified meaning.   Iran’s comment this week questioning why they should accept human rights lectures from “racists and colonists” was a bit over the top but not by that much. When states refuse to own up to their own rights limitations, their critiques of others, regardless of their legitimacy, are more likely to ring hollow.

What tends to ring even more hollow is the calls to “urgent action” uttered by the Myanmar Rapporteur and others this week.  These experts know well the suffering endured by so many and the long waits for accountability and justice that only serves to magnify the original abuse.  They also recognize that none of us nor our governing entities are “holy,” and that fixing this system requires some combination of raising our rights expectations, engaging in resolute dialogue that is more about disclosing and healing wrongs than political ridicule, and acknowledging the ways in which our individual and collective actions fall short – at times far short – of what those suffering from discrimination and exclusion, from abuses in factories and prisons, from harassment and torture at the hands of state authorities, from climate-induced displacements and from increasingly stark economic and social equalities need from us.  It also wouldn’t hurt our common cause if more New York delegates sought to refresh their understanding of how human rights treaty bodies function, or that more requests by Rapporteurs and Experts to visit countries of concern were welcomed rather than rejected.  Indeed, as soon-departing ASG Andrew Gilmour has said often of late, if you don’t like what we’re reporting about you, “let us in.”

This much-maligned, insufficiently understood and vastly under-resourced human rights apparatus of ours ironically still holds the key to the credibility of a multilateral system that people still look to for relief and justice.  As our colleagues (FIACAT and others) striving to improve the function of human rights treaties and states party reviews in Geneva know well, “mediocre” responses from us in this time of high political anxiety and wanton disregard of rights norms — responses politicized or indifferent — is as close to “sin” as our secular institutions of global governance would ever acknowledge.  We must avoid such responses at all cost.

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