Western Countries Turn a Blind Eye to Libyan Abuses
March 23, 2012
Some council members want to bask in ‘feel good’ moments over Libya and Burma without fully acknowledging the hard work ahead. The council’s overly rosy outlook on Libya confirms a troubling tendency to move on too quickly when a situation improves.
Julie de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea signaled both the gravity of the abuses and the need for the new president, Kim Jong-un, to make major reforms, Human Rights Watch said today. For the first time, North Korea’s allies in the council did not call for a vote, and instead allowed the resolution to pass by consensus. The council ended its four-week session on March 23, 2012.

“The Human Rights Council’s unopposed condemnation of North Korea’s horrific human rights record is groundbreaking,” said Julie de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “When no state is willing to defend North Korea’s record, there can be no doubt that North Korea needs to make real changes.”

The Human Rights Council was less adept at dealing with Libya and Burma, where some countries seemed committed to recognizing improvements in both states without paying sufficient attention to ongoing human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.

The council adopted a resolution on Libya that did not recognize the extent and gravity of ongoing rights abuses there and rejected efforts to ensure continued monitoring of those violations. Last-minute amendments by Russia and Uganda were rejected.

Russia’s amendments included a call for the release of people arbitrarily detained and for fair trials for other detainees, and a request that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report on the full human rights situation in Libya. Uganda’s amendments expressed concern about reports of killings and ill-treatment of people of sub Saharan African origin. They encouraged Libya to investigate all violations, including toward members of ethnic minorities and migrants.

States that had professed to support a stronger Libya text, including the US and several members of European Union, voted against the changes despite claims that they were pressing Libya to address substantial evidence of continuing serious violations of human rights in the country.

“This resolution is blind to the serious abuses in Libya today, including apparent crimes against humanity by some militias,” said de Rivero. “The governments that rejected demands for justice and outside monitoring are doing Libyans no favor.”

The council’s resolution on Burma also fell short of the mark by failing to include a mechanism for monitoring the release of political prisoners. Addressing human rights violations is particularly important during periods of change, when efforts can have more traction and patterns are set for the future, Human Rights Watch said.

“Some council members want to bask in ‘feel good’ moments over Libya and Burma without fully acknowledging the hard work ahead,” de Rivero said. “The council’s overly rosy outlook on Libya confirms a troubling tendency to move on too quickly when a situation improves.”

The Human Rights Council strongly condemned ongoing violations in Syria. It supported continued close scrutiny of Syria through the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the council and took an important additional step by calling for the commission to map gross violations of human rights since March 2011.

The Syria resolution also noted that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has encouraged the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. The overwhelming endorsement of this resolution, by a vote of 40  to  3  (China, Cuba, and Russia) with three abstentions (Ecuador, India, and Uganda) should send a convincing signal to Syria’s government about the dwindling support it can count on for its policies worldwide, Human Rights Watch said.

In responding to uprisings in other Arab countries, the council’s record was mixed, Human Rights Watch said. The council sent a positive signal by supporting independent investigation of abuses, backing the establishment of a UN human rights office in Yemen, and calling for the release of people arbitrarily detained.

At the same time, it failed, as in previous sessions, even to discuss Bahrain, despite continuing crackdowns on peaceful protests during the council session. On March 20, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern for “worrying reports” of disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of teargas that had reportedly caused several deaths of protesters and bystanders in recent months.

Arab member states of the council also voted inconsistently, strongly supporting action on Syria, but voting no or abstaining on resolutions on Sri Lanka and Iran, and ignoring the situation in Bahrain altogether.

“The council’s wildly varying responses to uprisings in Arab countries is a good mirror of the extent to which voting by council members is shaped by politics, rather than principles,” de Rivero said. “Bahrain deserves serious scrutiny, no matter how influential its allies may be.”

The Human Rights Council also adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka, which was strongly opposed by the government. The resolution demonstrated strong international support for accountability for abuses committed during Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, which ended in May 2009.

The council again condemned human rights violations in Iran and extended the mandate of the country expert appointed to monitor that situation, with only five states voting against the resolution (Russia, China, Cuba, Bangladesh, and Qatar). Technical assistance resolutions on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, and Somalia were also adopted.

For the first time at the Human Rights Council, 40 countries, including Nigeria, Benin, Mauritius, Maldives, Mexico, and Costa Rica, joined in a cross-regional statement condemning violations in Eritrea.

In addition to four resolutions relating to Israel that largely followed texts adopted in prior years, a new initiative on settlements was introduced by Pakistan that established an international fact-finding mission to investigate the human rights implications of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

The council session also included a groundbreaking discussion of a global study on human rights violations on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation commissioned by the Human Rights Council last year.