Monday, April 10, 2006

Claire Breen: When home truths hurt

It is all too easy to dismiss the work of the United Nations, particularly in the field of human rights protection, as irrelevant and biased, the product of a body that is referred to in terms of its failures rather than any modicum of success that it might have achieved the past 60 years.

That the world community has come together to produce a body of human rights law is a matter of discussion less worthy of consideration than the actions of states and individuals who are now regarded as violators of that body of law.

From the perspective of the UN Human Rights Commission, New Zealand is a violator of the human rights of its indigenous people. This must make uncomfortable reading for the Government of a nation whose Foreign Affairs website states, "We take pride in our reputation as a good international citizen".

Better then to go on the offensive and dismiss the report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Indigenous Issues as the product of a now-defunct body. Yes, the Human Rights Commission has been disestablished, largely in response to its highly publicised failures to prevent massive human rights atrocities.

But the commission and the UN do not exist in a vacuum. They are made up of states, like New Zealand, which espouse human rights ideals on the one hand but fail to support such ideals with concrete actions.

It was the self-interested, political machinations of states that stymied the work of the commission and which continues to stymie the work of the UN. Again, it is all too easy to criticise a faceless behemoth than take responsibilities for our failures and inadequacies as states and individuals.

The Deputy Prime Minister's dismissal of the Special Rapporteur's report and his failure to mention that the visit on which the report was based came at the invitation of the Labour Government in 2001 is a prime example of such political machinations.

The faceless behemoth that is the UN has taken such criticisms on board and has recognised the need for reform of its human rights protection mechanisms. The disestablished Human Rights Commission will be replaced by a the Human Rights Council in the next few months. This new organ hopes to avoid the pitfalls that dogged the commission and undermined the effectiveness of human rights protection at the UN.

The Deputy Prime Minister also failed to mention that the role of the Special Rapporteur has been preserved and is being transferred to the Human Rights Council, suggesting this aspect of the UN's work is regarded as valuable enough to form part of what is hoped to be a reinvigorated system of human rights protection at the UN.

But again, the council will be composed of states whose political self-interests will undoubtedly survive the evolution from commission to council.

The Deputy Prime Minister was not the only New Zealander to have a somewhat blinkered go at the UN last week. Jane Norton's criticisms on these pages of the UN General Assembly's seeming bias against Israel was apparently triggered by the passing of a resolution condemning Israeli treatment of Palestinian women.

Evidence of such bias was based on the failure to condemn equally Palestinian treatment of their women, as well as the disproportionate number of UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Israeli actions and, finally, the mathematical, if not political, equation that is the domination of one Jewish State by 60 Muslim States. It appears it is easier to simply condemn rather than analyse the broader picture.

With regard to imbalances, no mention is made in her piece of the fact that Israel has systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians for decades and has systematically flouted other aspects of international law. It is disingenuous to focus on the General Assembly's record of resolutions without mentioning that the Assembly is just one of a number of human rights bodies within the UN.

A perusal of the wealth of documentation on the interaction between states, such as China and Saudi Arabia, and those UN bodies dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights will reveal the UN's deep concern with these states' human rights records.

The UN system of human rights protection is far from perfect and, sadly, human rights tend to be defined more in terms of violation than protection. It is perhaps because the UN has been charged with the impossible task of ending human rights violations that it is such an easy target.

It is easier to throw stones at the behemoth than to examine critically our role in the promotion and protection of human rights, whether at home or abroad.

* Dr Claire Breen is a Senior Lecturer at the Law School, University of Waikato.

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