The United Nations’ Omission of Human Rights



The United Nations Commission on Human Rights is in dire need of repair. It has repeatedly failed to take decisive action in the face of genocide—in Rwanda 11 years ago, and now in Darfur. But just as bad is its inability to address terrible but smaller-scale atrocities—like those in northern Uganda, not too far to the south of Darfur.

Despite its relative obscurity, Uganda’s civil war is among the most brutal in the world. Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army have waged a vicious campaign against civilians in the country’s northern districts for nearly two decades. They besiege villages, capturing inhabitants and chopping off hands, feet, breasts, noses, and lips. They kidnap children (20,000 of them to date), forcing girls to become concubines and boys to become soldiers. Rebels brainwash children into loyalty and subject them to treatment so horrific that they often become too ashamed to return home. One escapee, for example, recalls having to chop up and eat the organs of another child.

Although Jan Egeland, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called northern Uganda "one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world," the news has barely escaped the confines of the U.N. Secretariat, and it has so far evaded the attention of the Commission.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s solution for the Commission’s failings involves the creation of a new Human Rights Council, which would form a standing body, one better equipped to tackle abuses like those in Uganda.

Of course, the scope of reform must be larger than extending the Council’s schedule. Annan’s recommendations also make the Human Rights Council into a principal organ of the U.N.; they require a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly for membership; and they abolish country-sponsored resolutions in favor of peer review for all countries. These reforms are integral to restoring the credibility and bolstering the efficacy of one of the few human rights bodies with the ability to end suffering and save lives.

But the creation of a standing body, particularly, would enable the Council to scrutinize more comprehensively the entire range of violations and help to ensure that human rights apply to all humans, and not simply to those who can pry their way into the evening news and the rushed schedule of the Commission.

The current Commission on Human Rights meets annually, for only six weeks in March and April. Critics of Annan’s proposal suggest that a year-round Council is unnecessary—the Commission has the capacity to hold special sessions for particularly heinous offences, as it did in 1992 to address abuses in the former Yugoslavia, in 1994 regarding the Rwandan Genocide, and in 1999 in light of the atrocities in East Timor, for example.

But less visible and less notable instances of oppression and abuse, such as the civil war in Uganda, cannot force their way into the Commission’s agenda via a special session. Today, these issues warrant only a small—if any—timeslot in a six-week-long meeting. This year, the Commission issued 85 resolutions between March 14 and April 22; only 15 resolutions targeted specific violations, rather than broad, global problems, and four of those dealt with Israel. No resolution addressed the crisis in Uganda.

The U.N.’s human rights body should be just as capable of looking deeply into human rights abuses, large and small, around the globe as it is of confronting a pertinent crisis. The Council must be devoted to human rights year-round, rather than for a month and a half, in order to prevent "smaller" issues from slipping through the cracks. As such, the world’s most important and prominent human rights body would no longer be subject to the whims of public opinion or the currents of media coverage.

The Commission is an incapacitated body; small changes won’t do. Annan’s proposal to create a standing Human Rights Council should be adopted because it would better enable the U.N. to address all those atrocious violations of human rights that fail to provoke a special meeting or justify a front-page story.

Aaron Roesch is a research associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.



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