Each year, human rights groups flock to Geneva with reports of human rights violations in their countries, sometimes compiled at great risk, hoping to get attention at the world's best-known human rights forum, the UN Commission on Human Rights. Both governments and civic groups have increasingly complained about the politicization and ineffectiveness of the commission, chaired last year by Libya for reasons of regional representation, and constantly hobbled by wrangles among regional blocs.
Yet despite the limitations, this year's session was a banner year for resolutions by or about the countries of the former Soviet Union, with a total of four resolutions submitted, three of which passed. Motions to censure human rights in Belarus and Turkmenistan succeeded, while a resolution on Chechnya failed despite U.S. and EU support. A resolution on combating Nazism sponsored by Russia passed, despite U.S. and EU concerns it was directed inappropriately at Latvia specifically and more generally at freedom of assembly.
Fifteen years ago, such efforts were not even contemplated, because the Soviet Union made it clear that it would never entertain resolutions on issues inside its sphere of influence. Only five years ago, resolutions on Eurasia, part of the "Eastern European" group, were conceived but not attempted. The theory was that if any motion were made against Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, or its neighbors, Russia would retaliate by condemning a Baltic state or Central European country like Poland and obstructing other actions.
Fifteen years ago, the Soviet Union made it clear that it would never entertain resolutions on issues inside its sphere of influence.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a breakthrough came in the early 1990s, when the delegation was headed by former political prisoner Sergei Kovalev. Still, old Soviet allies in the developing world continued to claim economic and social rights should trump civil and political rights, and a Russian diplomat with a newfound balance between the two was heard to sigh about the countries obstructing human rights progress, "They are our pupils."
Yet while East and West do continue the battle over the use of armed force, such as in Iraq, or about social justice, new realignments and realities have made it possible to discuss and condemn human rights violations in Russia's sphere of influence. The reason so many Eurasian resolutions could pass this year -- yet still face significant obstacles -- is explained by a conjunction of factors in the post-11 September world. Governments have come to see terrorism rather than human rights problems as a greater concern, and have come to see Russia as a partner in the war on global terrorism. Yet Russia has differentiated and compartmentalized its foreign policy to the extent that it can manage both cooperation and confrontation with the West simultaneously.
The imbalance in the commission's agenda is visible at a glance, with numerous resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but none on Iran or northern Uganda, and with difficult-to-assess norms like "the effect of toxic waste on the enjoyment of human rights" outweighing actions on political imprisonment or torture. In the past, such politicization kept out resolutions on subjects like the crackdown on NGOs in Belarus or the totalitarian rule of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov. Now, various shifts in tactics and coalitions have made it possible for such resolutions to flourish, although with dubious results.
First, after being voted out of the commission in 2002, the United States worked hard to get itself voted back on and came in with an agenda that might have been produced in the Cold War, but was curiously effective in the post-Cold War era. On the U.S. list of topics was Cuba, North Korea, Belarus, and Turkmenistan -- all places where communist or postcommunist totalitarian regimes were in power and still massively abusing human rights.
Second, meeting the United States halfway on these issues was the European Union, perhaps looking for areas where the trans-Atlantic alliance was not so frayed, as it was on matters like the war in Iraq, the death penalty, and the International Criminal Court. Europeans trying to deal with Belarus or Turkmenistan through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were frustrated at the lack of response and the deterioration of conditions in these countries. They were willing to take resolutions to another venue with more international attention. While peacekeeping forces are not easily deployed to enforce them, the human rights treaties of the UN are considered binding, unlike the softer pledges of the OSCE.
Third, countries in the "new Europe," new members of the European Union and NATO, who would have voted with the Soviet bloc in the past against the West, now vote with the EU as a bloc and have genuine concern about poor human rights conditions in neighboring countries. Thus Croatia and Hungary, members this year, favored the moves to censure human rights violation in Belarus, Chechnya, and Turkmenistan.
Fourth, Russia decided not to vigorously block actions on two of its close neighbors, Belarus and Turkmenistan, by attempting vote trades or threats of retaliation. In the past, both Western Europeans and Russia preferred to "sub-contract" the regional issues to the OSCE and keep them out of the UN. Now, Russia tolerated these issues to be raised at the much more publicized forum of the UN Commission on Human Rights, possibly moved by pragmatic concerns such as the gas-line dispute with Minsk and concern about the mistreatment of the Russian minority in Turkmenistan. The Turkmenistan resolution followed an unusual initiative within the UN General Assembly last year, for which Russia voted "yes," criticizing Turkmenistan for failing to cooperate with existing demands from the OSCE to provide access for a special representative on human rights and to political prisoners. Minsk has also proved impervious to the OSCE's calls for basic civil rights during elections and has failed to investigate the disappearances of three politicians and a journalist.
After being voted out of the commission in 2002, the United States came in with an agenda that might have been produced in the Cold War.
Still, the cooperation on these two resolutions came at a political price. Russia blocked the EU-sponsored motion on Chechnya, and indirectly, did what it had said it would always do to the Baltic states if its sphere of influence was touched, by supporting a thematic resolution about Nazism, containing a paragraph about SS monuments and parades widely perceived as directed against Latvia, where the Russian-speaking community continues to protest discrimination with active encouragement from Moscow.
In general, the commission's members prefer not to have thematic resolutions that appear to be a cover for action against one country, and to avoid inflammatory language such as was finally approved in this resolution, such as notions of "fuelling racism" and "poisoning the minds of youth." Nevertheless, African and Latin American delegates, in explaining their votes, said they believed the resolution was not directed at any one country, or while poorly worded, still deserved support.
African nations wanted to support any kind of action on racism, and some wanted to make sure they showed solidarity with developing countries against resolutions they felt were advanced by the West selectively . Latin Americans did not want to be accused of supporting fascism after years of right-wing military dictatorships. That left the United States and the EU to oppose the Nazism resolution, and appear as if they supported the SS, when in fact their "no" votes were driven by a desire to prevent specific action against the Baltic states and more generally, curbs on freedom of assembly. Latvia has permitted soldiers who fought in World War II, one-third of whom are said to have cooperated with Nazis, to hold parades and commemorations. Russia has seized on these rallies as evidence of Nazi sympathies and used them to discredit the Baltic states in their ongoing dispute about the Russian minority's rights. With the West opposing the resolution, Russia and its allies also gained the propaganda advantage of being able to accuse the West of double standards or worse, sympathy with fascism.
Whatever the factors that eased passage of certain resolutions and blocked others, the blocking tactics drew the fire of NGO activists. "The commission's votes show that powerful countries like Russia and China can still get away with murder, torture, and the silencing of critics," Joanna Weschler of Human Rights Watch was quoted as saying by the "Financial Times" on 17 April. The human rights watchdog said only politically isolated countries, like Turkmenistan, were being censured.
Passed with such difficulty in the swirl of politics, and watered down in the eyes of human rights activists, do such resolutions have any value? They generally contain little follow-up mechanisms other than the inclusion of a special rapporteur, in the case of Belarus, still to be named or in the case of Turkmenistan, a call for review at the next commission session. The value of the resolutions, say human rights activists, is more rhetorical than remedial. Without them, however, they fear worsening of such situations as the muzzling of the media in Belarus, Turkmenistan, or attacks on civilians in Chechnya if there is no resolution or even an attempt at a resolution -- the action is supposed to be a kind of check. They point to situations in the world that have long been missing from top UN agendas, such as Sudan, and say that even weak resolutions matter when it comes to trying to help victims.
Some leaders of democratic revolutions later come to international forums and say that in their darkest hours, the UN resolutions, as toothless as they seemed, were an important form of moral support from the world community and a certain deterrent to oppressive governments. Perhaps the lengths to which governments are willing to go to block resolutions are an indirect recognition of their value. Human rights groups have no choice but to hope that the old adage that "publicity is the best weapon" in their nonviolent struggle is enhanced by the UN Commission for Human Rights' pronouncements.
This report was included in the 4 May issue "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies." To see the rest of the report, click here.