Geneva — So, how many BMWs does it take to make one United Nations Human Rights Council?
Many — to judge by the scene I came across Monday evening in the parking lot of the U.N.’s plush premises in Geneva, site of the old and failed League of Nations. That’s where the U.N.’s “reformed” new Human Rights Council was racing the clock to finish sorting out its rules of play within the year allotted when it was approved in 2006 by the General Assembly (and praised by Kofi Annan). The deadline was midnight, and the gang of thug governments on the Council was gunning for a deal that would ease the way for them to permanently condemn — what else? — Israel, while giving some of the worst governments on the planet a free pass.
Unfree China, which sits on the council along with the likes of not-free Russia, utterly unfree Saudi Arabia, miserably unfree Cuba, and quietly unfree Qatar, was playing hardball. The Chinese were demanding that a two-thirds majority vote by the 47-member Council be required to place a country under scrutiny. America, in a moment of prescience during John Bolton’s tenure as ambassador to the U.N. had declined last year to dignify this new forum by seeking a seat in its ranks. So Canada, which is a member, was carrying the flag for the free world, and taking the pounding that at the U.N. is usually allotted to the U.S.
I’d arrived in Geneva Monday afternoon on other business, but at about 9 P.M. got an e-mail from Hillel Neuer of the stalwart and invaluable Geneva-based U.N. Watch, describing the standoff. So I strolled over to the Palais des Nations (yes, the U.N. in Geneva is housed in a palace) for a look. I walked past the fountains and the flags and the grand gates, past the flowerbeds and lush lawns surrounding the spacious well-manicured grounds, and descended a curving drive to a parking lot crammed with BMWs and Mercedes — harbingers of the diplomacy within. A black Porsche sped through the lot, presumably on some urgent night-time errand of humanitarian bent.
The cars (and chauffeurs) were ranged in front of a large building advertising a “human rights corner” and other Potemkin attractions for daytime tourists. The real U.N. was on display in a big downstairs assembly chamber. There were dozens of ambassadors, scores of aides, and a fringe of weary reporters, all waiting to see what wonders might transpire before the witching hour. There was no formal debate underway, but everyone seemed determined to sit it out at least until midnight. No one seemed quite sure what would happen if no deal had been reached by then. I watched three Russians swagger toward pride of place at their members’ seats, near the Chinese, in the inner ring of the concentric seating arrangements.
In the back of the room, scattered across some of the chairs in the press section, were printed handouts from previous sessions, all slamming Israel. I picked up two, one from Algeria and Pakistan, the other from “Pakistan (on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference) and the Sudan (on behalf of the Arab Group).”
The Israeli ambassador, Itzhak Levanon, was sitting in an observer seat, reading a newspaper. I wandered over and asked him if it was difficult to be the focus of so much attention. He said he was unenthusiastic about the arrangement, but “Sometimes you get a chance to reply.”
I drifted over to an observer for the European Union, and asked if it would really be such a bad thing if the Human Rights Council failed to meet the midnight deadline for agreeing on its own rules, and maybe just collapsed. He said that was unacceptable; the Council is “the main human-rights forum for the U.N. system.” I asked if it had not perhaps become a complete farce. He said, “It’s politics. That’s the name of the game. That’s the U.N. system.”
It was by then after 11 P.M. I hadn’t had supper, so I took a walk through the nearby corridors, hoping to find a vending machine. No luck, but just off the hallway I did come across a battalion of copy machines and a stash of printer cartridges so ample that I began to wonder if the money spent on printing up anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N. in Geneva alone could feed every famished child in Africa for the next year.
It was time to return to the chamber, where there was still no formal debate going on. Most of the assembled eminences were either milling around or sitting moodily in their seats, staring at a big clock high on the wall over the podium. The core debate was rumored to be going on somewhere backstage.
I browsed through the Council’s “List of attendance,” which included no less than five registered observers from the tiny but atrocious tyranny of Equatorial Guinea and 14 from Sudan. The clock ticked along, and there was time to wonder if apart from the Human Rights Council’s prime function of condemning Israel, its second-most valued feature for some of those present might be the opening it provides to spend time on diplomatic visas, with tax-free diplomatic shopping rights, amid the cafes and discreet private bank facades of Geneva.
I took a wander through the many outer rings of observer seats for diplomats whose governments beat and starve and isolate and murder their people — Iran and Sudan, North Korea and Syria. I watched the observers from Vietnam and Yemen and Venezuela huddled in alphabetical proximity, waiting for the magic moment at which this U.N. body might complete its year-long procedural gestation.
They were not disappointed. Just before midnight, Council president Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico reappeared from wherever he had been closeted, strode briskly to the podium and announced (apparently with no regard for Canada’s dissenting voice) that a solution had been found. China had compromised with the European Union. The upshot was that the U.N. Human Rights Council, having fulfilled its organizational requirements, will now omit any examination of Cuba and Belarus, ignore a raft of other despots under its roof, and above all, will carry on with its single-minded focus on democratic Israel.
The day’s work was done. It was just after midnight. Smiling, cheering, clapping, almost the entire crowd in the chamber rose and gave de Alba a standing ovation. Then they filed out to the parking lot, and in a convoy of BMWs and Mercedes (the Porsche was long gone), rolling up the drive, past the thick lawns and the sturdy gates, these U.N. guardians of human rights drove off into the night.
– Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.