Posted by: joellazar | April 30, 2015

The Council, The Dialectic, That final scene from Blues Brothers

These views are my own and are not necessarily shared by the International Service for Human Rights.

After a good month of human rights haggling in March at the 28th Human Rights Council – all of which was new to me like a babe to new light – much has already been said and written elsewhere. With some distance from the event, I wish to reflect.

In honed debating style, I’ll prepare you for what’s to come:

  1. Brief, general reflection on this incredible beast of a human rights event;
  2. A reflection that may, could, possibly, oopsy-daisy, end up siding with some bad guys;
  3. That Israel-Palestine‘thing’;
  4. Some healthy existential tangents

The Human Rights Council

As committees, councils and working groups abound in UN World, a word first on what the ‘Human Rights Council’ (HRC) is. It is an inter-governmental body (i.e. Members are ‘States’ or countries, represented by delegates) within the United Nations system, responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. The HRC meets for a ‘Regular Session’ three times a year – March, June, September – at the UN Office in Geneva to examine human rights issues and situations that require its attention. The HRC is made up of 47 UN Member States which rotate every three years, and are elected by the UN General Assembly. A State’s eligibility for selection for the HRC depends on its contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as its additional voluntary rights pledges and commitments (you, in the back, stop scoffing).

Every session is packed with a flurry of debates, resolutions, declarations, panels and side events. And when I say ‘session,’ stop imagining this size affair…


…and start imagining this…

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)Source:

Don’t ask me why everyone is on horses, or what’s going to happen to those few guys in the front row very soon.

The month-long agenda, also known as the ‘Programme of Work,’ is mental. Here is an example of one from the last HRC session.

The insider story about this agenda is also interesting. Here’s a reflection by Bob Last, Senior Human Rights Advisor from the UK mission in Geneva, on how mental it was getting at the most recent HRC session that I too was attending as part of my internship at ISHR:

“The combination of lack of time for proper meals, general neglect in the finer aspects of personal grooming and the knowledge that the session still has some time to go tend to take their toll. But this year there seems to have been more than the usual number of council viruses doing the rounds, depleting the numbers of delegates and testing the resolve of the overstretched colleagues that can still force themselves to work…

… I’ve converted my work rucksack into a portable pharmacy, complete with vitamin supplements, 3 types of flu relief, inhalers, rehydration sachets, emergency chocolate bars and blood pressure equipment. It’s working for me so far, but the extra weight load has aggravated my bad back, so I’m hoping someone will take up a spot of Council moonlighting as an amateur chiropractor in one of the smaller meeting rooms.”

Bob took a photo of the stuff he would carry at the Council building (at Palais des Nations) to stay alive. I’m talking over-the-counter drugs:


Defenceless children were unquestionably forgotten at the school gates once a week, on average, by a Council parent.

Enough about Bob. Bob, Bob, Bob. Let’s talk rights.

Fine internal monologue, have it your way. The wonderful folks at think-tank Universal Rights Group, summarized the 28th HRC by numbers and a smattering of analysis for those interested. Here’s a sample:

  • 8 panel discussions were held.
  • 83 reports under the various items on the Council’s agenda were considered.
  • The outcomes of the Universal Period Review working groups of the following 14 countries were adopted: Angola, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, El Salvador, Fiji, Gambia, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, San Marino and Slovenia. (The UPR was introduced in 2008 under which every UN State has its human rights record reviewed by State peers and a committee every 4.5 years, and recommendations made on how they can pull their socks up).
  • 17 mandate holders (11 thematic, 6 country-specific) presented annual reports to the Council (all of which are available here).
  • More than 214 side events were held by states and/or NGOs which addressed any number of human right topics like the impacts of extractive industries on indigenous populations, sustainable development, anti terrorism laws, women human rights defenders and more…
  • Two new mandates were established: an Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights of persons with albinism and a Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy in the digital age.
  • The Council considered 37 texts: 34 resolutions and 3 President’s statements (that is, the President of the HRC, who is part of a ‘Bureau’ of five people, with four Vice Presidents, each serving for one year and representing one of the regional groups). Of these texts, 62% were adopted by consensus, and 38% by a recorded vote.
  • The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to $11,928,350 (the amount of money an unpaid intern would earn by the time the sun exploded, Universe 2.0 came about, exploded again, and so on infinitely backwards and forwards, and… sideways. I think).

Reflection time boys and girls…

As I sat in on hours of debates, listening to States, experts and special rapporteurs highlight fissures in the plains of humanity, and rotten carcasses of human behaviour, I tried to put myself in the position of countries surrounded by condemnation from other States and NGOs.

To give you a sense of what it’s like in there, think Jake and Elwood ala the last scene in Blues Brothers:

blues brosSource:

You may think it a fruitless exercise to attempt empathy with an unashamed (and sometimes ashamed) human rights violator. I’m not especially worried, though, about how that ‘sounds.’ I’m interested in a positive outcome.

My desired outcome from the activities of the HRC, as it is mandated to do under its founding document, is to ‘promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all,’ not least by ‘address[ing] situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and mak[ing] recommendations’ to rectify them.

But, as is well known, international human rights law is not like domestic law. The latter is obligatory – you’re bound by the law and, for breaching it, you are punished if you fall under its jurisdiction. You are compelled. The citizen is born under law.

In international human rights law, however, the State may be a ‘citizen’ of the global community, but it cannot be compelled to act in any particular way for at least the following two reasons:

  1. Usually, a State must freely elect to be bound by certain international laws and norms. It might do this by ratifying treaties, voting positively on resolutions and declarations etc. (each imposing different levels of obligations – some are no more than a political expression of intent). Ordinariy, if a State does not elect, it is not bound, and it would therefore not be reasonable for international law repercussions to follow; or
  2. Even in cases where a State is bound by international law regardless of an election to bound, for example ‘customary international law’ which is a general global practice accepted as law (eg: the prohibition against genocide or torture), States can (and do) violate these laws without the global community being able to compel any punishment.

So the global community cannot, through the Human Rights Council (nor most other means, as an aside), force States to respect human rights; they must encourage States to elect to respect them.

They may do this by shaming or cajoling States, or by incentivizing or deinsentivizing rights-promoting behaviour. But as an Iranian delegate said in Council last month, in words so brilliant they cast tall shadows over the purest rhetorical masterpieces of the last 500 years: ‘mind your own business, bitches.’ That was, admittedly, liberal paraphrasing.

My ISHR colleague and an astute Pom, Thomas Helm, rightly whispered to me after Iran’s slight: ‘I’m pretty sure the point of this Council is that you are our business.’ I keep Tom close for more such perfectly-timed observations about States saying stupid things.

Because of the obvious limitations to rights-protection posed by State sovereignty and independence, the UN General Assembly decided (see the HRC founding document above) that cooperation and self-guided reform were the best methods for achieving the ends the HRC was designed to achieve. It therefore resolved that ‘the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights.’ These principles are designed to protect against the politicization of human rights. They are meant to ensure all human rights are protected and promoted irrespective of the perpetrator or the victim. They are meant to prevent individual States, or groups of States, ganging up on other States with whom they have political, racial, historical, diplomatic or economic gripes, and prevent them from using human rights reports and inquiries, panels and HRC statements, to settle scores or apply pressure in one place to get desired outcomes in other places.

Despite all this, there are no less than fourteen Special Rapporteurs mandated to investigate human rights situations in specific countries. This is an addition to a number of resolutions passed at most HRC sessions, including the recent one, that addressed specific countries (as opposed to general human rights themes and issues). That means, by definition, that some States have been selected for particular attention. Some of these countries include Iran, North Korea, Cambodia, Sudan and Mali. These governments have a great deal to answer for in their ongoing contempt for human rights. They suck. Full stop. And another full stop for good measure.

But you can understand why those defining terms – universality, impartiality, objectivity, non-selectivity, constructive dialogue and cooperation – were thrown around by those very same States (and their cronies) at the HRC like young boys fly through a barmitzvah-party scrum.


Flying Barmitzvah boy, Norm Levin. Pinterest

So here’s my kicker question:

How would I respond if I were one of these States selected for special attention?

Here’s my guess.

The HRC clearly has politicized elements, despite the principles laid down to avoid politicization. States be States, bro.

It’s naive to think that only the ‘bad’ States politicize human rights. The good ones probably do as well, we just either:

  1. largely agree with their ends, so we don’t particularly care about their means; or
  2. their violations are not ‘classic’ violations, like mass murder or shutting down media outlets, violations so common they are almost clichéd. Consequently, they are consciously or inadvertently allowed to slip under the radar. An obvious (similarly clichéd) example of a State receiving almost no pressure at the HRC over its failure to protect the rights of its citizens, is the United States of Glorious America.
    1. About 33,000 people are killed from gun deaths every year in the U.S. The Right to Life comes to mind.
    2. Edward Snowdon’s revelation that the U.S. has been surveilling and storing the private details of millions of Americans for no good reason brings self-censorship and Freedom of Expression to mind.
    3. The U.S. holds 25% of all the world’s prisoners despite being only 5% of the world population – the highest number of prisoners per capita, amounting to 2.5 million people. The Right to Freedom of Association, as well as a litany of economic, social and cultural rights undermined through imprisonment, also come to mind. Countless libraries of research have shown that this mind-boggling number of prisoners has little to do with an American proclivity for criminal behaviour 5 times higher than every other country.

So when America points its finger at almost every State but its own for an entire month throughout the HRC, it makes you wonder what motivates its ostensible passion for human rights when its own citizens’ cries go increasingly unheard.

Back to the discussion at hand.

Imagine you’re a State that’s been singled out, and you feel yourself to be the subject of politicization (whether true or not), and not the subject of genuine concern by other States for your citizens (especially if you know that a finger-pointing State has a far-from-squeaky-clean record). What do you do?

You probably have four clear options: Ignore, reject, falsely engage or authentically engage.

Ignore: you don’t attend the Human Rights Council session that addresses human rights in your country, or you never make any comment. You maintain silence because engagement would promote the legitimacy of the critique.

Reject: For every missile fired your way, you send one back; you deny accusations, you discredit victim testimonies, you highlight the hypocrisy of your critics and thus undermine their integrity and authentic motivations, you deflect by justifying your actions in light of other positive steps made in the same or unrelated areas of human rights, you cite every international law principle ever expressed that demands non-selectivity, dialogue, cooperation, transparency, non-coercion and non-confrontation.

Falsely engage: Make shit up. Say you’ll fix the problem, that you’ve started fixing it, that you are making best efforts to fix it, or that you’re in consultations with key Ministers about how to best fix it and still make it home in time for Downton Abbey. You say it’s your top priority. Repeat this for ten years. Add salt. Serves 46.

Authentically engage: You try to engage in genuine dialogue in the hope of actually improving human rights in your country, or in changing the minds of your critics to show them that you have a better record than their evidence seems to show.

In 4 weeks monitoring the Council, watching the reactions of States singled out for country-specific attention, I observed some of the first response above, steaming piles of the second and third response, and almost never the fourth. I am confident that my ISHR colleagues almost never observed the fourth either. [The Special Procedure set up to investigate some 40,000 deaths in Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war in 2009 may be a rare and recent exception. While ISHR has argued that the government must answer for its alleged reprisals against human rights defenders who have sought to cooperate with the Human Rights Council in this investigation, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has demanded State accountability for an ongoing ‘climate of intimidation, threat and harassment against civil society actors,’ Ra’ad also encouragingly identified in a recent report to the Council ‘signals of broad cooperation received from the [Sri Lankan] Government’ to mend old civil war wounds. This country-specific attention could well be beneficial. But I feel it is a significant exception to the rule].

Generally, when States are singled out for condemnation, they couldn’t give two Tim-Tams about what’s been said and they take no substantive actions to improve the lives of the people they are ruining.

Israel and Palestine and all that.

The discussion above leads me to my final discussion point: Israel and Palestine/West Bank/Gaza. Israel was the subject of no less than four resolutions in the recent HRC session. The resolutions were accompanied by the usual Middle-Eastern gang-up of Arab countries, as well as some vocal South American countries. Many of those selfsame countries, only twenty minutes earlier, without a hint of irony, had been condemning the HRC’s practice of selectivity toward them. Not a skerrick of irony.

All the while, massive and famous violators were the subject of no resolutions (China, for example). At one point the UN translator interpreted a State accusing Israel of ‘collective butchery.’ Astonishingly, the first and only time I have observed this, President of the HRC, Joachim Rücker, intervened, saying that such language was ‘inappropriate’ for the Council. (The President then corrected himself soon after, relaying that, on advice from his advisor, the English rendering of the phrase was not an accurate translation of the original Arabic. Nevertheless, clearly the State in question had used passionately hyperbolic rhetoric reserved for the special case of Israel. That special, special, violator).

This is all apart from the fact that, of the ten fixed agenda Items that structure every HRC session, Israel is the only country that has its human rights situation permanently assessed – under Item 7 – every session! Approximately half the Wikipedia page on the ‘Human Rights Council’ is directly or indirectly related to Israel, and to its ‘Item 7’ placement. This stuff is almost comical if it weren’t so tragically insane.

And here I am, giving this issue a good dose of attention in my blog. Which way is ‘Up’ anymore?

With that egregiously disproportionate level of country-specific attention relative to the evil being perpetrated in the world, how does that make me (and others) feel about the credibility of the Council? It’s quite possible that Israel has failed to adequately protect and promote human rights in ways that it is obliged to; whether the rights of citizens or those under occupation; whether rights during peace time or war-time. For all such instances a human rights light must be shone on it – like any other country. Nevertheless, I also know that Israel is not the devil incarnate – that it has a relatively flourishing civil society, climate of political freedom, freedom of press, expression and association, an objective and transparent judiciary etc.

I am fortunate enough to have examined the case of Israel for 10-15 years, through formal and informal study, as well three and a half years living all over the country (as a child, teenager, and adult). With the knowledge I have gained (and probably even without it – just watch the HRC and it’s patently obvious to anyone not wearing a plastic bag over their head), I am confident that the Council has politicized and skewed the case of Israel. Unfortunately, I don’t have that level of insight about other States and therefore cannot comment with equal conviction.

The frightening consequence, therefore, is that the case of Israel causes me to question the credibility and integrity of the Council in other areas. Where else are States being unfairly singled out? Maybe I shouldn’t mock the DPRKs, Irans and Myanmars of the world who claim to be targeted through the Council for political reasons, when I know that the Council is certainly capable of this with respect to at least one country – Israel? When are their cries to respect ‘universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation’ not mere deflections, but genuine attempts to restore balance and proportionality?

A final question before my final response. As an involved member of the Australian Jewish community, a community highly supportive of the Zionist and Israeli cause, I’ve heard for many years the scoffs and derision shown towards the UN and Human Rights Council because of the bias discussed above. So I ask: Is this dismissive attitude fair? Is it fair to question the entire system on account of its deep flaws in specific areas?

The democracy of the HRC

Scarce attention is given to how the Israel bias could even arise in the UN or HRC. The Council is democratic. New items make their way onto the agenda and into resolutions and become ‘Items’ because a majority of UN members will it. There are huge numbers of Arab and Muslim (and plenty of South American and European) States who either greatly identify with the Palestinian cause or greatly despise the Israeli one (falsely pitting one against the other; but that’s for another day). Every member State has one vote and that’s how the chips fall.

If you want an internationally recognised, intergovernmental council whose chips always fall your way, get your mates together over a beer and make a Council of it. See how you go.

For those who feel that this democracy tyrannizes Israel, this would be a tyranny of the masses. An unfortunate product of the democratic process (or fortunate, depending on who’s doing the tyrannizing) is that a majority may legitimately oppress the minority and do so consistently with democratic procedure.

It may make emotional sense to argue that because a system has deep flaw that it is wholly flawed. Logically though (and from our general experience with people) this is not the case. Just as people have flaws (even egregious ones), they also have redeeming features. Our duty is to assess the merits and truths of their actions and words; the opposite would be an ad hominem logical fallacy. That is, you attack your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument. 

In Israel’s case, this amounts to: Because I know you, Human Rights Council, are out to get Israel, you want its destruction etc., the substance of what you have to say is consequently and necessarily nonsense, and I will pay no attention to it.

This is where dialectic comes in.

Ppph. ‘Dialectic.’ Is that even a word?

The coexistence of the good and the bad at the Council has drawn me to think about dialectic. I’m no professional philosopher (heck, I’m not even an amateur one. But I’ve read the back of a Libra pack and learnt a thing or two about the world).

I find the following insight about dialectic to be useful (from Sir Wiki, son of Pedia, Earl of the Internet):

“…formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities… The dialectical method [however] requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real, but previously veiled, integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct.”

Dialectical thought can help us reject both sides of an argument, or to creatively find a relationship between apparent opposites to find a higher truth. There are obvious critiques of this way of thinking.

Some argue that it encourages and justifies irrationalism by allowing people to live and believe opposite truths when one of them should be invalidated by the other. Karl Popper, one of the greatest 20th century philosophers of science, argued that dialectical thinking contributed to the rise of fascism in Europe, the decline of liberalism in Germany and ‘lowered traditional standards of intellectual responsibility and honesty.’

And for binary thinkers, dialecticismismismism…ism is an extremely uncomfortable position to sit in; the world is either ‘A’ or ‘not-A.’ It’s not some hodgepodge fruit-salad of ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ that we might call ‘B’ or ‘shlubudub.’

There is merit in these arguments. We shouldn’t lightly accept and give equal attention to the opposite of what seems right and just. Having said that, any pursuit of what is right and just should not be engaged in ‘lightly.’ Whether Guy Sebastian has a crack at winning the Eurovision final this year – that’s what we engage in ‘lightly.’ Which is why I call for a non-‘light’ (even mildly-heavy-to-heavy) dialectical engagement with what transpires at the Council.

Jewish thought (which I love, because I’m a Jew and I think) adopts a similar approach to the pursuit of truth when interpreting its texts and tradition. In the ancient homiletic text Bamidbar Rabbah, the Sages say that there are ’70 faces to the Torah [Bible].’ It’s an encouragement to approach ambiguity, complexity and contradiction from multiple vantage points. Further, as 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes, the face symbolises an inescapable demand on our ethical attention. True, he speaks of the face of ‘the Other,’ not a disembodied idea like ‘human rights,’ but I am taking licence of analogy here. In that respect, each ‘face’ – each view on the good and bad of the Council – is given an inescapable degree of authenticity and ethical truth that cannot be ignored. All such views should be assembled to find a higher, or at minimum, more productive truth (if there i such a thing).

Back to the Council for the final time.

The longer I work at ISHR, and meet human rights and humanitarian workers in Geneva, the more I discover some of the incredible organs of the UN meaningfully and tangibly improving, for example, the lives of women, children, LGBT communities, migrants, trafficked people, victims of ethnic violence and natural disasters etc. It facilitates coalitions that further sustainable development in the Global South and it helps States improve policing standards. It sets norms and spreads best practice about corporate responsibility. It provides technical assistance to States in transition – helps them draft Constitutions, elect judiciaries and conduct fair and transparent voting. The list is long and good. No right-minded person would or should dismiss this work on account of the UN’s flaws and biases in other areas.

There is a clear dialectic here demanding that we hold goods and bads as different, but not mutually-annulling, truths, and raise them all to something higher. This dialectic may require us to focus on elevating the HRC tools that promote justice, seek to reform those tools that are broken or flawed and, no matter how arduous or frustrating it may feel, constructively try to build an even better institution that will meet the full mandate it was established to achieve.

The alternative is to throw the baby out with the bath water – in human rights, that probably means actual babies.


  1. The main difference between the USA and the states on the Special Rapporteur list (and some that are not on the list) is that the abuse in these places is either mandated or not illegal. For example, Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab countries where systematic human rights abuse against women is enshrined in law, eg no freedom of movement. While one may uncover aspects of human rights abuse in the USA (see recent episodes between African-Americans and police), these are actually illegal and citizens may freely protest against them.

    • Thanks for your comment Sandra; a really interesting point. What I think you’re pointing to is institutional vs. non-institutional violations (saudi arabia vs U.S.). And while there’s certainly a real difference between then, I wonder how important that differentiation is.

      Two points on that:

      1. The obligations of States re rights is to “respect, protect, fulfill” human rights. So regarding every human right a state must:

      A. Respect rights – that means a State itself refraining from violating rights
      B. Protect rights – stop others from abusing rights and investigate/prosecute when it happens
      C. Fulfill rights – set up systems and laws, and adequately resource them, to ensure rights protection

      So while institutional violations could come about through a failure in any, or all, of the three ways above, non-institutional violations could certainly happen, at least, by failing at ‘B’ and ‘C’ above. So for example in the case of gun control: authorities consistently and comprehensively failing to stop Americans from shooting up high schools and convenience stores, and failing to enact laws and provide resourcing to stop such deaths, could could reasonably amount to a violation by United States of its citizens’ Right to Life. As I note in the blog, as gun violence is not a “classic” violation, and most HRC time is spent focusing on institutional violators (like saudi arabia), possible violations like America’s don’t get much attention.

      2. Silent/unspoken/non-institutional violations may be worse, not better, than open ones. Their perceived ‘inevitability’ (i.e. ‘we’ve got a constitutional right to bear arms, people are going to get shot along the way. That’s life’ or ‘crime must be punished and prison is where punishment/rehabilitation/deterrence is dished-out’) have permeated the consciousness of society as being a fact of life. Arguably, the harms that arise from such engrained phenomena are far harder to eliminate than, for example, the mere repealing of a law.

  2. The list of 14 states with special rapporteurs is oddly random- there are so many other states where human rights are almost non-existent. So one can only deduce that the selection of these 14 is politically motivated

  3. […] year’s Global Intern here, Joel Lazar, provided a great insight into the vastness, scale, and intensity demanded by the Council’s incredibly dense programme of […]

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