In May, Conservative backbencher Larry Miller stated that he thought it was time for Canada to rethink its involvement with the UN. This is an excellent statement, which should lead to a debate in this country about Canada’s involvement in the UN. While quitting the UN altogether is a non-starter, the UN is made up of many different bodies, some of which are useful and some of which are corrupt to the point of being completely counterproductive. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is an example of the latter.
Since March 2011, the Assad regime in Syria has been brutally repressing an uprising that began as a peaceful protest. It is estimated that 14,000 people have lost their lives in the past year and reports of torture, rape, and unlawful imprisonment by the military are rampant. Despite this, however, Syria is currently a candidate for a seat on the Human Rights Council in 2014 and likely to win. Syria has long been one of the worst human rights violators in the world, but this has not kept it, nor many other countries amongst the worst human rights abusers on the planet, from seeking and gaining a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
The reason for this is and the primary problem of the UNHRC is that the rotating membership is done by regional elections. However, it has become habit for regions to only field as many states as there are spots on the council. This means that Syria will be one of four countries running for exactly four spots allotted to Asia. This system allows chronic human rights abusers to shield themselves from resolutions and sanctions of the UNHRC by assuring that chronic human rights abusing countries make up part of the UNHRC in a gentlemen’s agreement of ‘don’t notice my crimes and I won’t notice yours’.
What should Canada do? This country should immediately stop funding the UNHRC and stop seeking membership until reforms are made. What reforms? I would propose three very simple questions be asked of countries seeking membership on the UNHRC, answering any one of them with a ‘yes’ would automatically make that country ineligible for membership or automatically suspend membership if the answer became ‘yes’ after elections. My proposed questions would be:
Do journalists in your country face death or imprisonment for criticizing the government or its policies?
Is homosexuality in your country a crime punishable by imprisonment or death?
Have your armed forces or police responded to a protest by firing machine guns into the crowds in the last five years?
People may think that this is a laughably low bar for election to the UNHRC, but it would be a huge improvement over the status quo. Currently, there are several members of the UNHRC answering yes to these questions.
Djibouti: Journalists currently in jail for criticizing the government. All journalism conducted through a company controlled by the state.
China: Journalists currently in jail for criticizing the government.
Kuwait: Sex between two consenting adult males punishable by seven years imprisonment.
Saudi Arabia: Maximum penalty for sex between two consenting adult males is death.
Libya: Elected in 2010, did not lose its seat even when the government put down peaceful protests with machine guns.
Russia: Journalists regularly arrested and murdered. 365 journalists killed or missing from 1993-2009.
Cuba: Elected in 2009. The last two journalists who were in jail were finally deported to Spain in 2011.
Respect for human rights has to start at home. Imagine having a country where the punishment for being gay is death, elected as a member of something called the United Nations Human Rights Council. We can’t have the foxes guarding the hen house. Setting a minimum domestic human rights standard for member countries would help bestow functionality and credibility to the UNHRC. Canada should be aggressive in pushing for reforms and if the human rights abusers of the world wish to keep the UNHRC a corrupt institution meant to shield themselves from scrutiny, at the very least, they can do so without our money.