LONDON — The United Nations’ struggle against South African apartheid is one of its proudest achievements. Between 1952 and 1994, the General Assembly produced more resolutions on apartheid than any other issue, tried to expel South Africa from the UN, and instituted an arms embargo against it. When Nelson Mandela addressed the General Assembly for the first time as president in 1994, he acknowledged the UN’s central role in ending the racist policies. The sustained attack was deemed a success.

Not so fast, says Rosa Freedman, a specialist in international law and international human rights at the University of Birmingham in the UK, and the author of the first academic book on the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC). While South Africa deserved scrutiny, “the focus on South Africa left many gross and systematic violations virtually untouched,” including Chinese atrocities in Tibet and Soviet repression of several minorities.

South Africa was only ever the focus because, unlike other abusers, it was vulnerable politically, and it was convenient for some states such as the Soviet Union to pursue it in order to deflect attention from their own dismal human rights records.

In “United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment,” Freedman argues that this remains a common pattern. The HRC was set up in 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was perceived as failing, partially because it was so politicized. But the problem never went away: States routinely use the HRC’s mechanisms, debates and votes to further their own national agendas, targeting states they dislike and protecting their allies, regardless of how well they defend human rights.

States routinely use the HRC’s mechanisms, debates and votes to further their own national agendas, targeting states they dislike and protecting their allies

Exhibit A, of course, is Israel, the only country which is listed as a permanent item on the HRC’s agenda. As of March 2012, claimed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over 40 percent of its resolutions concerned the Jewish state.

In this sense, at least, the Human Rights Council’s “focus on Israel is our generation’s version of the focus on South Africa,” Freedman says.

While she emphasizes that Israel does commit human rights violations and should be scrutinized, she says it is disproportionate.

But it is not the only country unfairly targeted – or ignored. “Israel is a very clear example of the gross politicization that goes on at Council. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going on across the board, everywhere else. It’s an extreme example,” Freedman says.

“Why have there recently been special sessions on Syria, but not on other countries that were part of the Arab Spring?” she asks. “Why has there been so little discussion about Egypt?”

“Because Egypt’s a significant player, but Syria in some ways has lost the backing of its allies, which creates a chink in the armor,” she answers her own question.

“And why has there never been a discussion about China? It’s pretty clear why,” she says, implying it is too powerful to challenge.

Rosa Freedman (center) with Ambassador Karen Pierce and the head of the UN library services (photo credit: courtesy)

Rosa Freedman (center) with Ambassador Karen Pierce and the head of the UN library services (photo credit: courtesy)

In the book, which focuses on the Council’s first five years, two cases loom large. America – which, until Barack Obama became president, did not seek a seat on the Council- – is the only Western country repeatedly raised in reports. Many believe that the Council’s continued focus on its war on terror is politically motivated, as worse abusers are ignored.

On the flip side, while the Council often discussed the crisis in Darfur, its recommendations were broad, “action rarely materialized” and the body rarely followed up on the implementation. Freedman puts this down to sabotage by other African and Islamic states who insisted that “Sudan’s government not be singled out for scrutiny or criticism,” shielding their ally.

Freedman blames the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a political group, for much of the politicization. Although the number of countries on the HRC who belong to the OIC changes periodically, it is generally large, and they tend to wield great power, coming from different regions yet voting as a bloc.

Meanwhile, the Western countries are weak. The 47 seats on the council are allocated regionally and the “Western Europeans and others” group, which includes America, holds just seven – compared, say, to 13 for the Africans.

The 47 seats on the council are allocated regionally and the ‘Western Europeans and others’ group, which includes America, holds just seven – compared, say, to 13 for the Africans

Incredibly, Freedman claims that during negotiations when the Council was set up, “the Europeans didn’t think it through, how much weaker they would be at the new body. There was great hope and expectations that the founding principles enshrined in the HRC’s mandate would be upheld.”

These include non-selectivity, objectivity, cooperation and dialogue.

Still, she says, “I don’t think the OIC behaves in any more of a political way than the Western European bloc used to when they dominated. It’s part of having political blocs.”

The countries that tend to get picked on are those that have few regional allies. Israel is particularly vulnerable because it was blocked from joining the Asian group by the Islamic states, leaving it as a mere observer on the HRC.

For many of the dominating OIC countries, undermining Israel and America is a foreign policy aim. America is of little help. Despite its stature, it still only has one vote out of 47 – unlike the Security Council, for example, where it has veto power.

In March 2012, when the HRC resolved to investigate the influence of Israeli settlements on the Palestinians, Israel rebelled, suspending all ties. In January, Israel became the first country ever to boycott its Universal Periodic Review, a process each country must undergo every four years.

‘In the short term, Israel has made its point loudly and clearly. It is not prepared to be criticized by known abusers’

“In the short term, Israel has made its point loudly and clearly,” says Freedman. “It is not prepared to be criticized by known abusers.”

Now Israel is right to talk to the UN about how it can re-engage, as it has done over the past few weeks. Its actions already risk alienating the great majority of countries who do not have a direct interest in Israeli/Palestinian affairs and who are essentially neutral or undecided.

“If you don’t represent your point of view, all the neutral countries hear is the other side,” she says. “You can’t change the opinions of those who are completely opposed to you, but you can often dialogue with those who are completely on the fence.”

Indeed, Freedman argues that Israel has made a strategic error in the way it has dealt with the HRC all along. Instead of addressing the Islamic countries and trying to justify its positions, it should focus on reminding the neutrals that they lose out when attention is diverted to Israel and other pet-hates.

Already, “the Latin American and Caribbean states get really cross that the focus is again on Israel,” she says, although not yet cross enough to change things. Similarly, poorer countries who were desperate for help combating poverty complained about the waste of UN resources when a rapporteur produced a report on extreme poverty in America, emphasizing that it was the richest country in the world.

NGOs, too, can find that their one opportunity to highlight their cause to the Council is lost when Israel is brought up in unrelated debates.

‘Israel should be asking, ‘don’t you have anything to discuss?’

“Israel should be asking, ‘don’t you have anything to discuss? Don’t you want a visit from a mandate holder?’ It’s a different message to the one Israel seeks to give to the OIC.”

Major reforms to stop politicization are unlikely, Freedman says. From the UN’s point of view – and her own — the body is not failing; it still does well promoting human rights, even if it is weak on protecting them when violations do occur. And after sinking so much money into it in 2006, it is unlikely to disband it.

There may, however, be political willingness for smaller reforms such as stopping repeat statements, when a country repeats verbatim a statement already made by its regional group or political bloc, emphasizing a particular position. It might also be possible to tighten membership criteria, so that states known to be abusing human rights cannot join.

The most effective measure, says Freedman, would be to allow the HRC to continue dealing with human rights promotion, an area in which it is successful, while giving the “human rights protection” mandate, which is politicized, to a group of independent experts. The barrier there is that much of the HRC’s authority and prestige stems from the fact that it is inter-governmental, and it appears willing to sacrifice some efficiency to retain its legitimacy.

Even if Israel’s problems at the HRC magically disappeared, she adds, they would likely only migrate to another UN forum, and politics are unlikely to ever disappear from the HRC completely. As Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian UN diplomat, once put it, to criticize politicians for being politicized is like “fish criticizing one another for being wet.”