The Human Rights boot is on the other foot at the UN General Assembly
The 2012 General Assembly of the United Nations began on September 18 at the UN headquarters in New York. As outlined in the UN Charter, the function of the General Assembly is to discuss, debate, and make recommendations on a range of subjects pertaining to international peace and security.
With each of the 193 member states entitled to one vote, the General Assembly is the only part of the UN system that operates according to democratic principles. The main functions assigned to the General Assembly however, are ‘housekeeping’ – ones relating to the administration of the UN organs themselves: Approving the UN budget, and electing members to serve in UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council and as non-permanent members of the Security Council and other such agencies. The appointment of the secretary-general however, is based on the Security Council’s recommendation.
The power to make real decisions affecting the lives of millions of citizens of the developing world, especially decisions to wage war on member countries by the more powerful countries, continues to lie with the non-democratically operating Security Council where the five permanent members, the US, UK, Russia, China and France can veto any initiative not to their liking. The US is the most frequent user of the veto.
In addition to making the General Assembly an ineffective body, the West also ‘uses’ it as a forum to put their agenda before the world community: Disarmament, the rule of law; prosecution of persons responsible for the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia (NATO not included); and international drug control, all of which were featured prominently in this year’s agenda.
Also, US presidents use the General Assembly floor to lay down ‘their’ law as it applies to the rest of the world, and to read the riot act to ‘rogue’ nations as defined by them. Member countries that dare to plan for the peaceful use of nuclear energy and any other country with a strong nationalistic leader will be mentioned as ‘rogue nations’ who disobey US dictums. Countries that associate with them are also taken to task.
Barack Obama, in his address last week, for example, declared ‘unambiguously’ that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power: Clearly there is no legal or other basis to this threat, and it is against Article 1 and Article 2 of the UN Charter. Such threats are Crimes against Peace defined in Principle VI (a) under the Nuremberg Tribunal. But the US presidents are a law unto themselves, superficially, because the speech writers are under the control of vested interest groups.
A largely ineffective body
Next Obama staunchly defended freedom of speech, probably for himself. Obama also voiced American support for the revolutions in the Arab world, probably with the objective of selling weapons to the governments under threat.
In a display of clearly knowing which side his bread is buttered, the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who seems to frequently forget that he is only the chief executive of the UN, and not a head-of-state, also chipped in with the demand that Iran must prove the “solely peaceful intent of its nuclear programme.”
The General Assembly currently has the power of censuring states for violating UN Charter principles. But this power has never been used against many clear violations of the Charter by countries like the US, UK and Israel.
The US invasion of Iraq provoked calls from a number of organizations including the legal advocacy organization, the Centre for Constitutional Rights, to have the General Assembly take up the issue and override the impasse of the Security Council, but the assembly has not been allowed to do so through pressure on the developing country members by the richer and more powerful countries. Corruption, in addition to coercion, plays a large part in this formula.
In complete contrast, in August 2012, the General Assembly voted 133-12 to ‘strongly denounce’ the Syrian government for their management of the foreign sponsored Syrian ‘uprising’ that began in March 2011. Thirty-three countries abstained from voting on the resolution, which was overwhelmingly backed by Western countries and their allies.
Many General Assembly initiatives against Israel have either been reversed or favourably varied through US pressure and financial blackmail of the UN system: Resolution 3379 of 1975 which declared Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination was revoked in 2001. In 2000, Israel also circumvented the prohibition of it serving on UN commissions and panels by moving in to a different regional group from the Mideast regional group where the Arab states exercised some control.
In 2005, then secretary general Kofi Annan presented a report that criticized the assembly for focusing excessively on consensus and passing resolutions that reflected “the lowest common denominator” of opinions: A strange criticism of the democratic process by an acolyte of the system that promotes democracy for everyone. Michael W. Doyle of Columbia University, an aide to Annan and the author of the report wanted the assembly to enhance its ‘relevance’ by holding hearings with expert testimony. The assumption is that all experts come from either the US or the European countries.
Decolonization prevented by the US
Occasionally however, the western dominated, and largely compliant kindergarten atmosphere of the UN General Assembly is disturbed by demands for justice by some member nations, and others who stand up for non-members.
There have been two such demands this year: The Palestinian Authority’s bid for non-member state recognition by the UN, despite US opposition, and the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s address to the Strengthening Human Rights meeting hosted by the Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño.
The US obstruction of the Palestinian demand to be decolonized and their harassment of Assange display to the international community the massive hypocrisy involved in the US campaign to be portrayed as a genuine defender of human rights in the world, and the world leader at that.
In 2011, the US thwarted the Palestinian application for full UN membership by threatening vetoing at the Security Council stage, notwithstanding the overwhelming support of the General Assembly. The only alternative the General Assembly has at its disposal is to grant the Palestinians ‘non-member’ state recognition that only requires a simple majority vote there. This change however, would only give the Palestinians status similar to that of the Vatican, enabling it to serve on UN bodies. UNESCO has already voted to admit Palestine as a full member state. The US and Israel took revenge by cutting off funds to UNESCO. Such was their ‘support’ for freedom and human rights!
Human rights violations by the US
Assange was speaking from the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he has been living as a political refugee for the last three months, unable to travel to Ecuador to live as a free citizen of that country due to threats of arrest by the British government. Speaking through satellite video link, Assange demanded that his human right for political asylum be not violated by the UK, US and Swedish governments.
Julian Assange accused Obama of not translating his vocal support for freedom of expression into action. “It is time for the US to cease its persecution of Wikileaks, to cease its persecution of our people, and to cease its persecution of our alleged sources. It is time for President Obama to do the right thing … not in fine words, but in fine deeds,” Assange told the meeting. He also pointed out that Obama was seeking to exploit the Arab spring revolutions for political gain.
Increasing the power of the General Assembly vis-à-vis the Security Council is essential if the UN to at least appear as a world body operating under democratic principles to safeguard world peace and security. Currently, it is just another instrument through which the US imposes its hegemony.
By Dr. KAMAL WICKREMASINGHE