In 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called then US President George W Bush “the devil” and complained of the smell of sulphur. There was also a mass walkout in 2011, during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s attack on Western “slave masters and colonial powers”.
What does the UN actually do?
When considering the future of the UN, we also need to think about what it is there for.
The role of the UN is to provide a space for countries which often don’t agree to take limited collective action. The UN’s main bodies include the General Assembly, with a seat for each member country, and the smaller Security Council for responding to threats to peace and security.
Alongside these are a range of specialised agencies that do mostly non-controversial work. These include the International Civil Aviation Organization, World Meteorological Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Programme.
Countries approach the various parts of the UN differently. They use the bully pit of the General Assembly for rhetoric and bombast but cooperate in the Security Council, where it’s in their interests. For the most part, they let specialised agencies get on with their practical work.
During the Cold War, debate in the General Assembly was heated and the Security Council could not act due to the Soviet and US veto. But the UN survived.
As many, including former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have noted, “if [the UN] didn’t exist, we would invent it”.
Expectations are key
The key to understanding the UN is having realistic expectations. At the height of the Cold War, then UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld famously said,
[The UN] was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.
What the UN can do, even when key members are at loggerheads, is keep the basics of international cooperation going. It has shown great resilience, even during the height of the Cold War, progressing important issues such as decolonisation, arms control, peacekeeping, racial discrimination and the rights of the child.
At other times, they don’t. For example, COVID-19 has seen individual national responses more than coordinated action. But the continuing existence of mechanisms for information-sharing, like the World Health Organization, remains important.
What happens next?
What are we likely to see at the UN from now on?
We can safely assume there will be more combative rhetoric. The US and China didn’t have brilliant relations before this meeting and it is likely things will continue to deteriorate.
Neither strategy is necessarily welcomed by other members. As International Crisis Group’s UN director Richard Gowan observes,
a lot of the UN’s members think the US is destructive and China is power-hungry. They don’t find either very appealing.
The UN’s job is to keep China and the US talking
In Guterres’ address this week, he warned the world cannot afford a future where “the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture” — each with their own trade, financial rules, internet and artificial intelligence capacities.
Make no mistake, the conflict between China and the US is a significant challenge for the UN. But it has 75 years’ of experience to handle it.
It now has to work to keep two contending great powers engaged in the international system, while progressing its mission to promote peace, dignity and equality on a healthy planet — at least as much as its members allow.
The global Sustainable Development Report 2020, released this week in New York, ranks Australia third among OECD countries for the effectiveness of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, beaten by only South Korea and Latvia.
Yet Australia trundled in at 37th in the world on its overall progress in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which cover a range of economic, social and environmental challenges – many of which will be crucial considerations as we recover from the pandemic. Australia’s worst results are in climate action and the environment, where we rate well below most other OECD countries.
South Korea tops the list of effective COVID-19 responses, whereas New Zealand (which declared the coronavirus eliminated on June 8, albeit with a few sporadic cases since) is ranked ninth. Meanwhile, the United States, United Kingdom and several other Western European countries rank at the bottom of the list.
South Korea, Latvia and Australia did well because they not only kept infection and death rates low, but did so with less economic and social disruption than other nations. Rather than having to resort to severe lockdowns, they did this by testing and tracing, encouraging community behaviour change, and quarantining people arriving from overseas.
Using smartphone data from Google, the report shows that during the severe lockdown in Spain and Italy between March and May this year, mobility within the community – including visits to shops and work – declined by 62% and 60%, respectively. This shows how much these countries were struggling to keep the virus at bay. In contrast, mobility declined by less than 25% in Australia and by only 10% in South Korea.
Why has Australia performed well?
There are several reasons why Australia’s COVID-19 response has been strong, although major challenges remain. National and state governments have followed expert scientific advice from early in the pandemic.
The creation of the National Cabinet fostered relatively harmonious decision-making between the Commonwealth and the states. Australia has a strong public health system and the Australian public has a history of successfully embracing behaviour change. We have shown admirable adaptability and innovation, for example in the radical expansion of telehealth.
We should learn from these successes. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful framework for planning to “build back better”.
The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by all countries in 2015, encompass a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to be met by 2030. Among the central aims are economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. They are arguably even more important than before in considering how best to shape our post-pandemic world.
As the report points out, the fallout from COVID-19 is likely to have a highly negative impact on achievement of many of the goals: increased poverty due to job losses (goal 1), disease, death and mental health risks (goal 3), disproportionate economic impacts on women and domestic violence (goal 5), loss of jobs and business closures (goal 8), growing inequality (goal 10), and reduction in use of public transport (goal 11). The impact on the environmental goals is still unclear: the short-term reduction in global greenhouse emissions is accompanied by pressure to reduce environmental safeguards in the name of economic recovery.
How do we ‘build back better’?
The SDGs already give us a roadmap, so really we just need to keep our sights set firmly on the targets agreed for 2030. Before COVID-19, the world was making progress towards achieving the goals. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 10% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2018. Access to basic transport infrastructure and broadband have been growing rapidly in most parts of the world.
Australia’s story is less positive, however. On a composite index of performance on 115 indicators covering all 17 goals, the report puts Australia 37th in the world, but well behind most of the countries to which we like to compare ourselves. Sweden, Denmark and Finland top the overall rankings, followed by France and Germany. New Zealand is 16th.
It is not surprising, in light of our performance during the pandemic, that Australia’s strongest performance is on goal 3: good health. The report rates Australia as on track to achieve all health targets.
Australia also performs strongly on education (goal 4), and moderately well on goals relating to water, economic growth, infrastructure and sustainable cities. However, we perform extremely poorly in energy (goal 7), climate change (goal 13) and responsible consumption and production (goal 12), where our reliance on fossil fuels and wasteful business practices puts us near the bottom of the field.
On clean energy (goal 7), the share of renewable energy in total primary energy supply (including electricity, transport and industry) is only 6.9%. In Germany it is 14.1%, and in Denmark an impressive 33.4%.
Australia rates poorly on goal 12, responsible consumption and production, with 23.6kg of electronic waste per person and high sulfur dioxide and nitrogen emissions.
Australia’s performance on goal 13, climate action, is a clear fail. Our annual energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are 14.8 tonnes per person – much higher than the 5.5 tonnes for the average Brit, and 4.3 tonnes for the typical Swede.
And whereas in the Nordic countries the indicators for goal 15 — biodiversity and life on land — are generally improving, the Red List measuring species survival is getting worse in Australia.
There are many countries that consider themselves world leaders but now wish they had taken earlier and stronger action against COVID-19. Australia listened to the experts, took prompt action, and can hopefully look back on the pandemic with few regrets.
But on current form, there will be plenty to regret about our reluctance to follow scientific advice on climate change and environmental degradation, and our refusal to show anything like the necessary urgency.
The original version of this article reported that New Zealand was ranked sixth for its coronavirus response. It was in fact ranked ninth. This has been corrected.
The US government’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has a clear political motive: to shift the blame for its own failure to respond effectively to the epidemic within its own borders.
This is unfortunate, because it is in everyone’s interest to work together, not to question China’s handling of the crisis but to discover the factors that cause new infections so we can avert future disasters.
We need to understand how SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, came into existence, and to look at how and when we might have been able to impede its progress.
This means examining the origins of the virus and the biological and environmental factors that allowed it to become so dangerous. To achieve this, an international, collaborative scientific investigation free from recriminations and narrow political agendas is needed.
What we know so far
Extensive scientific data have shown that SARS-CoV-2 was not deliberately engineered and there was no conspiracy to create an epidemic. It did not originate in or escape from a laboratory, in Wuhan or anywhere. The first human cases of COVID-19 did not come from the Wuhan wet market but from elsewhere in China, possibly outside Hubei province altogether.
In fact, the disease did not “originate” in a market at all, although an important spreading event linked to the Wuhan market did occur that brought it to the attention of Chinese public health authorities.
So here is the most likely sequence of events: a coronavirus in a bat found its way into one or more other animal hosts, possibly including a pangolin or some kind of cat, somewhere in southern China. At that time, the virus could not infect or cause noticeable disease in humans, or else the animals infected had little contact with humans. Over an unknown period of time (possibly decades) the virus mutated in a way that made it highly dangerous and eventually, by chance, a human became infected, probably in about the second week of November 2019.
The new virus was quickly passed on to other people and found its way to Hubei province. On December 10, an infected individual visited the crowded market in Wuhan and was responsible for infecting 21 other people. Over the following two weeks, enough people became sick to alert doctors and public health officials, leading to an announcement on December 31 warning the world of the dangerous new disease. The market was closed the following day and vigorous efforts were made to identify and isolate contacts.
Three weeks later it was clear these measures could not contain the epidemic, and on January 23 Chinese authorities took the brave and unprecedented step of locking down the entire city. This controlled the spread of the virus in China, but it was too late to stop the spread internationally, because by that time the virus was already present in Taiwan, South Korea, Europe and the United States.
What we don’t know yet
What we now have to find out is what happened in the months or years leading up to November 2019 and whether, in retrospect, anything could have been done to prevent the disaster.
It is crucial we understand the evolution of this virus because, as with all human diseases that emerge from animals, it will have occurred as a result of both random biological events and responses to environmental pressures. The virus had to mutate, the original wild animal had to be exposed to other species, and the virus had to spread within that species and undergo further mutations. The animal had to come into close contact with a human who, at the right moment, has to contract the new infection.
Despite the low probability of each individual step, in recent decades a long list of viruses has negotiated this entire pathway, including HIV, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah, Lassa, Zika, Hendra, various types of influenza, and now SARS-CoV-2. This suggests new factors are increasing the chances of exposure, adaptation, infection and spread.
It is likely these factors include population growth, agricultural expansion, the loss of natural wild animal habitat, the loss of traditional food sources, and changing relationships between animal species and between animals and humans. Deforestation and climate change further exacerbate this process, as does increased movement of human populations, through domestic and international travel. The international illegal wildlife trade, inappropriate use of drugs and insecticides, and reluctance of governments to work together make matters even worse.
Knowing exactly how these factors affect the genetics and evolution of viruses will help us find ways to thwart them. We could develop a coordinated early warning system to identify and track potentially dangerous pathogens, and monitor interactions between species that could transmit them. We could preserve native habitats and reduce the pressure on wild animals to enter human habitats in search of food. We could strategically cull animals that act as reservoirs for dangerous viruses.
We could precisely target infection control procedures such as health monitoring and quarantine. We could work together to develop diagnostic tests, new drugs and vaccines. We could develop globally coordinated rapid response plans for when new outbreaks arise.
This process will only work if undertaken with openness, trust, and an acknowledgement that it is in the entire world’s best interest. It will only work if we accept that viruses are not national problems or sovereign responsibilities, but global challenges.
COVID-19 should be a wake-up call that petty recriminations, ideological rivalries and short-sighted political ambitions must be set aside. The countries of the world must encourage China and the United States to raise their sights to the greater challenge and help conduct the investigation we need to avert future disaster.
It is urgent, because the next pandemic may already be incubating somewhere in the world at this very moment.
Australia has enjoyed 27 years of continuous economic growth, arguably more than any other developed country. Almost alone among developed economies, we managed to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis. Employment is at an all-time high, due mainly to a surge in the labour force participation of women, from 40% to 56% of all women over the past three decades.
This success was built on a contract – partly explicit, but mostly implicit – in which the bulk of the population agreed to support contentious reforms in exchange for a guarantee that they wouldn’t be left behind.
High employment masks high inequality and entrenched disadvantage. Although the unemployment rate has fallen from 6.5% to 5.5% since the turn of the century, underemployment (where people work fewer hours than they want to) has climbed from 6.5% to 8.5%. Since the crisis the proportion of the unemployed who have been out of work more than a year has climbed from 14% to 24%. Low-skilled men, younger Australians, women with children, and Indigenous Australians find working more challenging than the headline figure suggests.
Wages growth fell to an all time low after the economic crisis and has yet to recover.
Well-connected cities and regions
As a vast country, connectivity is critical to our prosperity. By and large, we meet the need well through investment in physical infrastructure. But rapid population growth in our big cities and political considerations have made it more difficult.
Our cities and regions offer a very high quality of life, but are evolving by default rather than design. Planning isn’t guided by a consensus about the desired pattern of economic and population growth. The result is low-density cities (far lower than comparable overseas cities) meaning long commutes and social isolation for many.
As house prices have surged, our household debt has climbed from 70% of GDP in 2000 to 120% of GDP today. Home ownership has become more difficult, with many only able to afford options that come with poor access to services and jobs. We are now vulnerable to falling house prices, rising interest rates and global uncertainty.
Dynamic but not diversified
Our open and flexible economy has benefited from dynamism offered by new people, new ideas and new investment. Strength in industries such as international education delivers not only a sizeable brain gain, but also new and important relationships, particularly in our rapidly growing region.
But these successes disguise our wider failure to diversify our economic base. Economic complexity (EC) measures the depth (sophistication) and breadth (diversity) of what a nation sells to the world. It is a strong predictor of economic prospects.
While the EC measure has limitations for a heavily resource-intensive and service-based economy, Australia’s low and deteriorating ranking, 86th in the world, is consistent with other indicators.
Our high investment in physical capital contrasts sharply with our comparatively low investment in knowledge-based capital. Knowledge-based capital encompasses not only research and development, but also software and data, design, marketing and organisational capabilities.
Australia’s business investment in R&D has fallen consistently since the crisis. We rely far more heavily than other nations on indirect R&D tax incentives, leaving less room for more direct approaches.
Innovative nations stimulate both public and private sector innovation through mission-driven approaches. With a few exceptions, Australia does not. We do not attempt to leverage our strengths in fields such as health, education and water, or to meet societal needs, such as those for reduced emissions, sustainable food, better population health or less inequality.
There’s an alternative
A more robust and resilient Australia would be built on a broader base of industries and capabilities. It would address goals that were more than merely economic and adopt as a goal a smaller environmental footprint.
Getting there would require us to develop a shared vision of what we want. We are doing well overall, and badly in places, without quite knowing what we are trying to achieve.
Transforming Australia: SDG Progress Report is an initiative of the National Sustainable Development Council to assess Australia’s progress against the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Released almost exactly a year after the start of devastating violence that drove 671,500 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh within a matter of months, the report found conclusive evidence that Myanmar’s armed forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Using the strongest language to date, the report calls for the Myanmar commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and five generals to be prosecuted.
What was the UN investigating?
The UN Human Rights Council formed a Rohingya investigating commission in March 2017, five months before the start of the violence that led to the mass flight of Rohingya refugees. The initial reason for the commission was a five-month military “area clearance operations” in Rohingya communities from October 2016 to February 2017, which resulted in widespread allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes.
The commission was set up to investigate alleged human rights violations by military, “with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.” The August 2017 violence occurred after the commission had already begun, but obviously gave it more to investigate.
The “area clearance operations” were triggered by attacks against security forces on October 9, 2016, by a new militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). What really spurred the military into action was that the same day as the attacks, the organisation uploaded a series of 11 videos calling for international funding and fighters to join their jihad to liberate northern Rakhine State for the Rohingya – links were quickly found between the leader and the Taliban.
Apparently fearing a situation similar to the ISIS-linked Marawi crisis in the Philippines, the Myanmar army launched massive operations. But this military action failed to root out ARSA, and they responded with a second, much larger attack on August 25, 2017.
The Myanmar government quickly labelled the coordinated attacks by ARSA on over 30 security posts on a single night as “terrorism”. In response, the military quickly launched even more brutal counter-terrorist operations.
Obviously, any government must respond to violence perpetrated against its security forces. But the UN commission has been investigating alleged human rights abuses by the Myanmar army against the Rohingya people as a whole, as they tried to contain the armed threat.
What is the state of the Rohingya crisis?
The onset of brutal military action in their communities led to mass panic by Rohingya communities. Over half the Rohingya in Myanmar were so terrified they abandoned everything and fled to Bangladesh. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) quickly estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya died in the military violence in the first month alone. Total Rohingya deaths were perhaps over 13,000 people.
By March 2018, the UNHCR counted 671,500 Rohingya who had fled Myanmar since August 25, 2017. Counting those who had fled earlier violence, the UNHCR was looking after 836,210 Rohingya refugees in camps in Bangladesh.
Given some remain outside the camps, the Bangladeshi authorities claim 1,092,136 Rohingya refugees are now sheltering in their country. Only about 500,000-600,000 Rohingya Muslims now remain in Myanmar, and their situation is very vulnerable.
With allegations of Rohingya links to terrorism, some elements are trying to isolate these Rohingya villages and drive them out. On the other hand, there are many others locals rebuilding relations with local Rohingya.
What did the report find?
The Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released this week found conclusive evidence that the army and security forces had indeed engaged in mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya, with “genocidal intent”. It therefore recommended that the UN Security Council should refer the Myanmar commander-in-chief and five generals to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or an ad hoc international criminal tribunal. The report also suggested that ARSA might be guilty of war crimes too, and should be held to account.
The report said that Nobel Peace Prize-laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her government “contributed” to the atrocities through “acts and omissions”. This is a serious critique, and the international community must continue to demand she and her government change policy direction on the Rohingya.
The report authors strongly criticised Suu Kyi in particular, for not using her moral or political authority to stem the hate speech or apparently attempt to limit the military response. However, the passive role described in this report does not leave her open to international prosecution.
How can the crisis be brought to an end?
With serious mass atrocity crimes now documented, it is now urgent that the power of the army be reined in. The Myanmar army must be brought under civilian, parliamentary oversight, and the key perpetrators be at very least removed from position. The military have clearly demonstrated that they need formal oversight, and that their current senior leadership are unfit for command.
Myanmar has long demonstrated its ability to be belligerent to the international community, and that it is prepared to isolate itself in the face of international criticism. If this occurs now, 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and up to 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar remain in peril.
The perpetrators of mass crimes must be removed. But we must be careful that dogged pursuit of individuals for prosecution does not so undermine any hope of cooperation by the military and government, and thus further jeopardise the future and wellbeing of the Rohingya themselves.
The repatriation of Rohingya to Myanmar is urgent, before all chance of them returning to their own land is removed. But repatriation plans to date don’t sufficiently guarantee their security and human rights guarantees. The international community needs to push for this, and engage more strongly than ever with the Myanmar authorities in achieving this outcome.
Likewise, the international community must commit resources now to ensure the security and future of the 600,000 or so Rohingya remaining in Myanmar. Much work must be done on strengthening social cohesion, and facilitating the sort of social change that would prepare the local population for accepting all the refugees back too. Now is not the time for broad sanctions and isolation, but engagement for the sake of the Rohingya.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is a UN treaty body, made up of 23 independent experts from around the world, and its key functions include:
examining state parties’ implementation of rights under the convention
making recommendations detailing how state parties can improve compliance with the convention
accepting individual complaints about violations of rights under the convention
What did the committee say about Australia’s record on women’s rights?
The committee noted areas of improvement, including marriage equality, the introduction of the paid parental leave scheme and the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status and family responsibilities.
However, it also issued over 90 recommendations for improvement, demonstrating that negative aspects far outweigh progress on women’s rights.
Human rights framework
The committee reiterated its 2010 recommendations that Australia should introduce a charter of rights. The Committee also recommended that Australia harmonise state, federal and territory discrimination laws to enhance their effectiveness in prohibiting discrimination against women.
The committee denounced funding cuts to the Australian Human Rights Commission, and emphasised the importance of the government respecting the independence of the commission.
Violence against women and sexual harassment
The committee noted the endemic nature of violence against women, with one in three women experiencing physical violence, and almost one in five women experiencing sexual violence. The committee recommended that the government reinforce efforts to change behaviours that lead to violence against women. This includes encouraging reporting violence, and adequately funding services under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.
The committee raised the prevalence of sexual harassment, and recommended that the government take into account the outcomes of the national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, encourage reporting and impose appropriate sanctions on perpetrators.
Women’s economic disadvantage
The committee condemned the government’s lack of gender budget analysis. It said:
The Committee considers that some of the State party’s recent cuts to social, health, education and justice budgets, reduction of taxes for high income groups and increase of the defence budget represent a setback…
It recommended the government take immediate measures to mitigate the effect of recent budget cuts on women, implement gender-responsive budgeting in the allocation of public resources, and reinstate the funding of services catering to women’s rights.
Access to justice
The committee criticised funding cuts to legal assistance services, and urged the government to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Productivity Commission Inquiry into Access to Justice. This includes ensuring adequate funding for community legal centres and legal aid.
The committee raised concern at provisions in funding agreements that restrict the ability of community legal centres and civil society organisations to advocate for women’s rights, and recommended the government remove provisions from funding agreements that restrict freedom of expression.
Treatment of diverse groups of women
The committee recognised that diverse groups of women, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, LGBTI women, women with disability, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugee women and older women experience greater barriers to accessing and enforcing their rights.
These include discrimination, lack of access to appropriate services, higher risk of violence, higher unemployment and homelessness rates, and lower representation in public life. The committee recommended numerous measures to improve gender equality for diverse groups of women.
Where to from here?
The release of these recommendations comes at a time of great uncertainty in international human rights. We’re seeing a disturbing retreat from fundamental human rights principles and institutions across the world.
While Australia has been using its seat on the Human Rights Council to advocate at the international level for the rights of women and girls, the gap between our global leadership on gender equality and the reality faced by women and girls in the Australian community is stark.
Australia has an extremely poor record of implementing treaty body recommendations. During the committee’s review of Australia last month, the Australian government, while stating that it takes its international obligations “incredibly seriously”, admitted that on most fronts it had no plans to amend laws or policies to improve protection of the rights of women and girls in the Australian community.
As part of the committee’s follow-up procedure, Australia must explain to the committee what steps it has taken to implement priority recommendations within two years.
The committee’s four priority recommendations focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, funding for women’s services, reproductive rights, and ending offshore processing of refugees.
The challenge for Australia is to engage positively with the committee’s recommendations and implement changes to improve human rights for women and girls at home
Maria Nawaz, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor, Kingsford Legal Centre UNSW; Lecturer, UNSW Human Rights Clinic, UNSW and Tess Deegan, Law Reform Solicitor/Clinical Legal Supervisor at Kingsford Legal Centre, UNSW
In doing so, they claimed the council was a roadblock to genuine global human rights protection. This move by the Trump administration has been anticipated for some time. In a sense, the elephant has left the room. But in doing so, the elephant has belled the cat on a number of serious issues regarding the HRC.
Is the United States’ decision sound in terms of international human rights protection? Is it one that Australia, an HRC member from 2018-2020, should follow?
What is the Human Rights Council?
The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which ran from 1947 to 2006. By the time of its demise, the commission was criticised from all sides for being overly politicised.
The HRC’s 47 seats are divided between the five official UN regions in the following way: Africa (13); Asia (13); Latin America and the Caribbean (8); Western Europe and Other (7); Eastern Europe (6). The US (and Australia) is in the Western Europe and Other Group, known as WEOG.
One-third of the council is elected each year by the UN General Assembly, and members serve three-year terms. No member may serve more than two consecutive terms. A member can also be suspended from the council in a vote of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly: Libya was suspended in 2011 after Muammar Gaddafi’s crackdown on Arab Spring protesters and armed dissidents. No other member has been suspended.
The HRC meets three times a year for a total of around ten weeks. Its 38th session has just begun. It also meets for one-day special sessions at the initiative of one-third of its members. It has so far held 28 special sessions.
The HRC also authorises independent investigations into particular human rights issues, either thematic (dealing with a human rights issue such as torture or LGBTI rights) or, more controversially, focused on a particular state. At the time of writing, there are 46 thematic mandates and 12 country mandates for these “special rapporteurs”.
It has one major new function compared to its predecessor, the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”), whereby the human rights record of every UN member is reviewed by the HRC (as well as all other “observer” nations) every five years.
The US’ grievances against the HRC arise with regard to the human rights records of its members, and its politicised character. Its key red line concern seems to be the HRC’s “unconscionable” and “chronic bias” against Israel (to quote from this morning’s press conference). These issues are examined in turn below.
Membership criteria as they stand are very soft: candidates commit to the highest standards of human rights, and states should take into account a nominee’s human rights record when voting. Both of these rules are basically unenforceable.
Human rights criteria were mooted as prerequisites for membership when the HRC was created. However, the UN’s nearly 200 members could not agree on substantive criteria, as they have very different views on human rights. The US, for example, wanted only “democratic nations” to be eligible. Such a criterion would have led to debates over the meaning of “democracy”, and would seem to prioritise civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural ones. A focus on the implementation of economic and social rights might have led to the exclusion from eligibility of the US itself.
In any case, the “measurement” and respective ranking of human rights records across states is contentious. While comparisons between two states may lead to easy conclusions over which one is better or worse, it is a fraught exercise across the entirety of the UN membership.
Procedural criteria, such as a nation’s record on ratification of human rights treaties, would be more objective. However, such criteria might have led to the exclusion of the two most powerful countries in the world – the US and China, which have both failed to ratify crucial treaties. Realpolitik indicates that such an outcome is very unlikely.
In the press conference, Haley and Pompeo decried the presence of human rights abusers on the council, including China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Consternation has also commonly been expressed over the common presence of Saudi Arabia and Russia on the HRC. Certainly, none of those states is remotely close to upholding the highest standards of human rights. Haley and Pompeo went further, claiming that these states manipulate the HRC to shield abusers and target blameless states in its resolutions.
So how bad is the HRC membership? Freedom House is a non-government organisation (NGO) that rates states as “free”, “partly free”, or “not free”, according to certain civil and political rights criteria, such as press freedom. While Freedom House’s methodology is assailable, I will use its rankings in assessing the current HRC, as the US itself historically uses them in making certain policy choices.
2018 is in fact one of the worst years in terms of the numbers of non-free HRC members. Nevertheless, free states always outnumber unfree states on the HRC, and can easily pass or block any resolution with the cooperation of just a few partly free states, if they vote together.
Any problem with “bad” resolutions on the HRC arises not from a preponderance of bad states, but from bloc voting within regions, like-minded groups and alliances.
The phenomenon of clean slates
Nevertheless, one can still fairly criticise the HRC for containing 14 non-free states. How do such states get elected?
A major problem for HRC elections is the issue of “clean slates”, whereby the number of candidates presented by a UN region correlates exactly to the number of seats it is scheduled to have elected at any particular time. For example, a region might put forward only two candidates for two seats. In such circumstances, the various candidates’ election seems to be a fait accompli. This phenomenon of clean slates was what Pompeo was referring to when he said that some states were elected by a rigged, collusive process.
Yet clean slates are a problem with all of the UN regions. The US itself was initially elected to the HRC on a clean slate in 2009. Australia was elected to the HRC on a WEOG clean slate in 2017, due to France’s belated withdrawal of its candidature.
Genuine elections do occur when open slates are presented by regions. This is how Russia was rejected in 2016, an unprecedented and humiliating blow that probably led to Russia’s failure to even stand for election in 2017. Other serious human rights abusers, such as Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka and Belarus, have failed to gain seats in similar circumstances.
Although states are elected on a regional basis, each member must still attain the majority of votes in the general assembly in order to be elected. There remains a possibility that an unacceptable candidate will simply not reach that threshold, even in the case of a clean slate.
That possibility has in the past led to the late replacement of controversial candidates, such as Syria’s replacement by Kuwait in 2011. This author eagerly awaits the day when the General Assembly finally flexes its muscle by refusing to elect an entire clean slate, thus depriving a region of a seat for a year. Such an outcome, in the absence of a relevant reform, is one way to dissuade future clean slates.
Finally, while states – particularly WEOG countries – might rail against the awful records of other members, those sentiments might not be reflected in their actual voting. After all, voting is by secret ballot. For example, given that Saudi Arabia is a key US geopolitical ally, it seems likely that the US (and even Australia) has voted for it on occasion. Certainly, the UK seems to have done so.
The US is correct that membership criteria should be revisited. Certain obstacles could be put in the way of the worst abusers, such as compulsory open slates, public voting (which might help prevent UK votes for Saudi Arabia), and a requirement that an eligible state must allow visits by all special rapporteurs.
Politicisation of the HRC
As the HRC’s members are representatives of their governments, the HRC is a highly politicised body, like its predecessor. State governments are political constructs, so any institution made up of government representatives is inevitably political too.
Unfortunately, states will generally vote in favour of their national interests rather than human rights interests if the two should clash. Pompeo inadvertently admitted that this morning, when he praised Haley by saying that she always put “American interests first”.
Politicisation inevitably leads to the manifestation of political biases. The most notorious HRC bias concerns Israel. It seems that the US’ biggest complaint over the HRC, and the “red line” that has led to its withdrawal, is the HRC’s treatment of Israel.
Its special rapporteur mandate stands until the occupation is over, so its renewal is automatic rather than the subject of periodic debate, as is the case with other mandates. The mandate-holder investigates its actions rather than those of the Palestinian authorities, whose abuses are largely ignored.
Israel has been the subject of more special sessions than any other state (more than a quarter of the 28 sessions). Having said that, it was the subject of the first three special sessions in 2006, and four of the first six, so the “hit rate” of 4 out of 22 is less stark since then.
Why is the HRC preoccupied with Israel? For a start, Israel has committed serious human rights abuses that are worthy of the HRC’s condemnation. It is absurd for Pompeo to have implicitly suggested that Israel has “committed no offence”. Any HRC bias does not mean that the substance of its criticisms is wrong. The recent killings of Palestinian protesters, targeted killings, illegal settlements, forced evictions, war crimes, the Gaza blockade and, most fundamentally, an ongoing occupation of Palestine that has lasted for more than 50 years, will cause critics to proliferate.
Nevertheless, that does not explain the HRC’s disproportionate attention to one country, given the scale of human rights abuses by other states that receive far less attention.
Ardent supporters of Israel often contend that the bias is driven by anti-Semitism. While such a motivation cannot be dismissed, there are other reasons that seem likely to be driving this phenomenon. The equation of “anti-Israel” with “anti-Semitic” is simplistic.
Israel has many enemies among UN states. Some have never accepted Israel’s right to exist, believing that it was established illegitimately on Arab (Palestinian) land. Indeed, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation was set up in 1969 to unite Muslim states after the 1967 war in which Israel seized the occupied territories, so opposition to Israel has been an article of faith since its inception. The OIC routinely brings as much diplomatic pressure to bear on Israel as possible. As OIC states straddle the two biggest UN groupings, Africa and Asia, they can rely on significant bloc solidarity for support in their initiatives.
The racial element, whereby the Jewish State of Israel illegally occupies lands populated by Arabs in the occupied territories, attracts the ire of developing states, which have historical grievances regarding racial oppression. Yet other instances of racial tension – such as the oppression of the Tibetans, the Kurds, the West Papuans, the Tamils or the Chechens – fail to attract the same HRC scrutiny.
One difference is that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is not recognised as legitimate by any other state, unlike for example China’s sovereignty over Tibet or Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua.
Indeed, increasing numbers of states have diplomatically recognised the occupied territories as the State of Palestine, and the UN General Assembly voted in 2012 to recognise Palestine as a non-member state.
Occupation also allows states to feel safe in attacking Israel without being too hypocritical. While human rights abuses are sadly common, the status of “occupier” is rare. Indeed, Israel is sometimes seen as a remnant of colonialism, and its actions certainly breach the right of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.
However, Israel is not the only occupier. Morocco has long annexed the [Western Sahara], yet the global silence on that situation is deafening in comparison.
Israel is also seen as a surrogate for the West, particularly the US. Given that Israel is almost always defended within the UN by the US, and is often defended by much of WEOG, the question of “Israel-bashing” has become part of a greater North/South divide in the UN. Anti-American states such as Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia see Israel as a US surrogate in the Middle East, and exploit the issue accordingly.
Bias against Israel is matched by biased displays of support for Israel by its allies, such as the US and Australia. For example, the US instinctively presumed that the recent border killings were justified. Past bombings of Gaza (in 2009 and 2012) have been blithely dismissed by Australia as an exercise of Israel’s right to self-defence. But a legitimate case of self-defence can still result in an illegal use of excessive, indiscriminate or unnecessary force.
Regardless of its causes, the HRC’s perceived bias against Israel is counterproductive. It provides Israel with a ready-made argument to reject even legitimate condemnation, thus providing cover for human rights abuses. Indeed, claims of bias (within and outside the UN) have become a dominant part of the Middle East narrative on both sides, detracting from a focus on the actions of the actual protagonists. It has facilitated Israel’s progressive disillusionment with and disengagement from the UN, and now, the disengagement of the US. It reduces the HRC’s credibility and opens it up to charges of hypocrisy. None of these outcomes is useful for those who sincerely wish for improvements in human rights for all in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.
Finally, the biggest problem with the focus on Israel is the corresponding lack of focus on other serious human rights situations. While it is impossible to demand or expect that a political body, or even an apolitical one, should achieve perfect balance in its human rights focuses, it is fair to expect that such focuses not be way out of balance.
The US and human rights
Haley and Pompeo reassured us that the US will continue to play a leadership role in human rights, despite its withdrawal from the HRC. And certainly, the US’ role on the HRC was in many ways positive. For example, it took the lead in addressing impunity in Sri Lanka. The WEOG group suffers from some dysfunctionality on the part of EU states, which generally seek a common position. Strong non-EU voices are important in this regard.
Yet the US is as political as other players on the HRC. Just as some states instinctively oppose Israel, the US instinctively supports it. Neither position is principled. The US has also protected other allies, such as Bahrain.
Outside the HRC, US President Donald Trump is not a credible leader on human rights. He seems to have an affinity with leaders with horrible records, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Most recently, he responded to comments about North Korea’s human rights record, which is possibly the worst in the world, by praising the “talented” Kim Jong-un.
And of course, the US has long had its own serious human rights problems, which are too numerous to mention, but which include torture and the highest proportion of incarceration in the world. Its recent decision to separate migrant children from their parents and intern them reflects its status as the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Furthermore, it is nonsense for Pompeo to suggest that the HRC had sought to infringe on US sovereignty. This betrays a serious misunderstanding of the concept of sovereignty, indicating that it dictates immunity from criticism. It does not.
Is the council salvageable?
The US is correct to note there are major deficiencies in the current HRC. Is its response therefore the correct one? If so, that would seem to indicate that Australia should also quit the HRC. It is very unlikely that Australia will do so.
The HRC is the peak global intergovernmental human rights body, which may represent the world of today, warts and all. The battle for universal human rights observance will not be won by adopting an “us and them” mentality, which excludes significant numbers of countries in the world from “the human rights club”. Such a solution is more likely to lead to balkanised human rights discussions, and possible competing institutions inside and outside the UN.
The HRC must remain a forum where non-like-minded states, and civil society, can talk to each other, and occasionally cross divides to make important human rights decisions.
Furthermore, the HRC is meant to be a political body. Other parts of the UN human rights machinery are made up of independent human rights experts, and accordingly take a more impartial approach than the HRC. While their human rights findings are more credible, it also seems that states generally take their findings less seriously.
States tend to care more about what their peers think than what human rights experts might think. Hence, human rights would suffer in the absence of a relevant intergovernmental global body.
Despite its flaws, the HRC does make decisions that benefit human rights, even in the face of political lobbying by members with scurrilous motives. For example, a special rapporteur was appointed to investigate Iran (after the application of US pressure), and it remains in place, despite that influential country’s forceful efforts to dismantle the mandate. A special rapporteur on LGBTI rights was appointed in 2016, despite fierce opposition from the OIC and homophobic states, due to an alliance of developed and developing states, and civil society.
The HRC will continue to be an imperfect institution for as long as the UN is made up of states with imperfect human rights records. However, the council still can and must be improved.
But the worst way to achieve that goal is by just walking away.