For decades, serving as a representative for a number of different non-governmental organizations, the British historian David Littman regularly made a noble nuisance of himself before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights Commission, and later the Human Rights Council, in Geneva. His purpose was always the same: to do what little he could to touch the conscience of this at once tragically and farcically wayward agency, to remind it of its own official raison d'être, and to use his bully pulpit to draw the attention of the world to horrific circumstances upon which the Commission, later the Council, refused, for one reason or other, to act. In firm but civilized words, he spoke up, for instance, against the persistence in certain societies of the Jewish blood libel, documented certain societies' violence against women, and condemned certain societies' treatment of Christians.
Since the certain societies in question were, more often than not, Islamic ones, Littman routinely ran into trouble with the U.N.'s Muslim mafia. When he pointed out that the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights gave sharia precedence over what he considered universal human rights, he was sharply rebuked and instructed that the “issue of religion” should be raised only with the greatest of “sensitivity.” He wasn't having it: “certain religious beliefs threaten the universal values of human rights,” he insisted, and went on to lament the “growing phenomenon of cultural relativism” that was making it harder and harder to honestly address a whole host of human-rights issues in a forum that had been founded, after all, to do precisely that.
Littman died on May 20 at age 78. He left a devoted wife, Gisèle, also a historian, and also a fearless, long-time defender of human rights, who is known professionally as Bat Ye'or. He also left an organization, the Human Rights Council, which, with Littman's passing, lost a formidable and eloquent challenger to its grotesque miscarriage of its duties. And the unfortunate fact is that there is no organization on earth that, given the scale and nature of its putative responsibilities, needs such a challenge. It will be recalled that the reason why the Commission, founded in 1946, was disbanded in 2006 and replaced with the Council was that it had become a farce: its members included major human-rights offenders like Sudan, and it repeatedly found excuses to condemn Israel for relatively minor infractions while systematically ignoring large-scale, truly barbaric violations by Muslim states. The Council was supposed to correct all that; in reality it simply became the Commission under another name. So pointless – indeed, counterproductive – was its existence that the U.S., under George W. Bush, chose to have nothing to do with it, although that decision was reversed under President Obama.
I was reminded of Littman the other day when I watched a video of Thor Halvorssen, founder and president of the Human Rights Foundation, addressing that selfsame Human Rights Council on June 28.
Halvorssen was there in connection with the “Stop Chavez” campaign by UN Watch, an organization with which Littman was long associated. Briefly put, Venezuela wants a seat on the Human Rights Council, and UN Watch is one of several human-rights groups that, quite rightly, consider this an outrage. One of those groups is Human Rights Foundation. Halvorssen, who is Venezuelan by birth, came out fighting, spelling out Chavez's offenses succinctly and firmly: “In Venezuela, exercising free speech is fraught with risks. Political dissent is criminalized. Property is capriciously and unlawfully seized. Opposition politicians are disqualified from elections thanks to false accusations. Journalists are harassed and media critical of the government is simply shut down. Judges are fired and even sent to prison when the president dislikes their rulings.”
Halvorssen went on: “More than 150,000 people have been killed in Venezuela since Lieutenant Colonel Chávez was elected president in 1999. Add to this the more than 5,000 who have died in the country’s disgraceful prisons....While all of this has taken place, this council has remained silent.” On top of which “Venezuela is now seeking election to this council.” To grant it a seat, Halvorssen said, “would shame and embarrass this council, and would allow Venezuela to shield its horrendous record of abuse and, equally problematically, to validate other authoritarian governments such as Syria, Iran, and one that sits shamefullly on this council — Cuba.”
As Halvorssen said the name of Cuba, he pointed a finger at the Cuban representative. “Electing Venezuela,” he warned, “would deny this council the chance to shine a light into the darkness that envelops Venezuela. And it will blunt actions to protect 29 million Venezuelans who – ”
At which point Halvorssen was cut off. At 2:08 on the video, if you look carefully enough, you can see Castro's outraged lackey leaping out of his seat (and, in doing so, inadvertently knocking his chair to the floor) and waving his arms to get the chairwoman's attention.
There ensued a bit of confusion. First the chairwoman started to introduce the next speaker. Then, however, she was apparently advised to do otherwise, and instead called on the representative from Cuba, who proceeded to lecture her angrily on procedure and chide her for not having cut off Halvorssen earlier. “The speaker is out of line,” he thundered. “It is possible to refer to human rights situations, but one cannot question the hopes and aspirations of states to become members of the Human Rights Council, or their right to be members.” He called for Halvorssen's statement to be struck from the record. After the US representative took exception to this request, China spoke up, agreeing with Cuba that nobody has a right to challenge a country's right to be a member of the council. Halvorssen was then – finally – permitted to continue his statement. But not for long.
“This December,” Halvorssen noted, “four authoritarian governments, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Russia will step down” – i.e., from seats on the council. “You have a golden opportunity – ”
This time the chairwoman was quick to cut him off. “Your time is up. Cuba, you have the floor.” Whereupon the Cuban representative congratulated her on her adherence to proper procedure. “This is how it should occur,” he said, patting her figuratively on the head. And he added: “We would like to ask the NGO through yourself, Madam President, that they abstain from using disrespectful terms such as 'authoritarian regimes.' We will not permit them to use this kind of language in this forum.” Russia chimed in, agreeing with Cuba; China then called on the chairwoman to silence Halvorssen, and raised the question of whether it is even permissible to use terms like “authoritarian” in the council. After a brief word by Pakistan, the chairwoman summed up the thugs' verdict on Halvorssen's speech: “I would like to call on everyone to adhere to language that is commensurate with the dignity inherent in the discussion of human rights issues.” And that was that.
Watching this absurd spectacle, I thought of two people. One of them was George Orwell. I would love to have heard his verdict on an international “Human Rights Council” packed with goons working for the likes of Castro and Putin. A “Human Rights Council” on which terms like “authoritarian” are verboten because they offend the authoritarians' delicate sensibilities. A “Human Rights Council” on which blunt truth-telling about human-rights violations is considered incommensurate with “the dignity inherent in the discussion of human rights issues” – whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.
And I thought of David Littman. Surely, I reflected, he would have been very pleased to see Halvorssen setting the harsh facts before these gangsters – and, in doing so, visibly causing them distress. It was good to think that even though Littman is gone, his spirit lives on in people like Thor Halvorssen. In one sense, of course, to try to talk to the U.N. Human Rights Council about human rights is to bang your head against a wall; then again, if the banging makes a noise so loud that it echoes far beyond the council room, who knows what difference it can make?
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