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Making a Bad Joke of Rights

May 01, 2003

It's hard to take the U.N. Human Rights Commission seriously when it allows Libya, China, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe to pass judgment on nations accused of oppression and torture. Cuba's reelection to that panel Tuesday, at a moment when much of the world is aghast at Fidel Castro's summary executions and in-your-face imprisonment of activists, journalists and librarians, is like an absurd sketch on "Saturday Night Live."

Why, at a moment the world is in particular need of a respected body to promote peace and enforce international law, does the United Nations allow itself to be embarrassed by this sad silliness?

The answer is that it can't shake loose from an obsolete election system that chooses the Human Rights Commission's 53 members based on geographical representation, rather than on a nation's record on the matter that is the panel's raison d'etre. Regional groups get to decide among themselves who will fill an area's allotted seats. By negotiating with other members in the region, human rights pariahs such as Cuba can easily wrangle one of several seats allotted per region -- and thereby assume a role that only a surrealist could fully appreciate.

The international organization Human Rights Watch has proposed a rule to exclude from the Human Rights Commission "countries whose records the commission has condemned, which have failed to implement commission recommendations and which have refused to allow visits by commission investigators." That reasonable suggestion would rule Cuba out on every count.

Addressing the commission at the end of its annual session in Geneva last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reminded its members that their mission "to promote and protect human rights in the widest sense is more important than ever, your responsibility to act more urgent."

As long as that body remains a rogue's gallery of torturers, such words will sound like a bad joke, and snickering will continue to undermine the serious purposes of the entire United Nations.

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