Each year, in March and April, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) greets the European spring by convening for six wonderful party-filled weeks in delightful Geneva, one of the world's most expensive cities. Geneva has restaurants and shops that would tempt a saint. But you seldom hear complaints from the 3,000 representatives of the Commission's 53 member countries. Every last one of them has an expense account and they all know that as servants of humanity's highest ideals they deserve the best.
Moreover, they try to keep busy, or at least look busy. They have working groups to attend, special rapporteurs to hear. They must reconsider their systems of "standard-setting and implementation," which may lack meaning but nevertheless require frequent and solemn attention.
Delegates may pause to consider one of their proudest accomplishments, the translation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights into more than 300 languages, from Abkhaz to Zulu. This means that people all over the world can now read about the human rights they don't have. As the UNCHR Web site boasts, the Guinness Book of Records has certified the Declaration as the world's most translated document.
It's possible that delegates know they are the subject of rude remarks in many parts of the world. They are probably aware that non-diplomats consider it monstrous that the agents of the world's most vicious political butchers meet amiably every year to mull over the human rights they have no intention of granting to anyone, least of all their own citizens.
As the International Herald-Tribune asked yesterday, "Are the foxes guarding human rights?" Delegates from more or less decent nations must know that they have been conscripted as actors in an absurdist comedy on the theme of hypocrisy. They may even have heard that the taxpayers back home (in, say, Canada) regard their antics as ludicrous.
Still, they have no trouble brushing off that mean-spirited criticism. After all, who are the critics? Amateurs, non-specialists, people who probably never once drew up a worthless treaty or helped someone steal a few million Euros worth of foreign aid.
But every year around this time there also arrives in Geneva a report from Freedom House, that exemplary New York-based organization that tracks the progress of liberty around the world. Freedom House, which was founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt and others, stands for everything that the UNCHR professionals deplore. While delegates and their political bosses bluster, promise, concoct alibis, and demand tolerance for outrageous behaviour, Freedom House chugs along doggedly, telling blunt truths.
Freedom House doesn't believe in promises or good intentions, just facts. It studies each nation and asks the same specific questions. Are judges independent of politicians? Does the government acquire its power from votes or some other method? How many people are in jail for their opinions? Can journalists and other citizens criticize the state? Are women allowed to drive cars?
Freedom House makes a point of delivering the answers to UNCHR. So on Thursday morning in Geneva, acting as always like a skunk at a garden party, Freedom House released "The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies, 2005."
And you would never guess, unless of course you had followed UNCHR in the past, what the report reveals: Of the 18 most odious governments in the world, six are members of the Human Rights Commission and at this moment are in Geneva, charting the course of freedom across the globe. The Guiltiest Six are China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Nine other countries classified by Freedom House as "Not Free" (this means not-quite-as-bad-as-they-might-be) also belong to the Human Rights Commission: Bhutan, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Swaziland, and Togo. Taken together, then, despotic governments fill just over a quarter of the seats on the UNCHR.
Those who believe in the UN, and respect the way the government of Canada keeps pledging allegiance to its ideals, owe it to themselves to read the most recent Freedom House report, which runs just 139 pages and is available free ( www.freedomhouse.org/research/mrr2005.pdf ).
A report issued by Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week proposed, among many other things, that the Human Rights Commission be replaced by a Human Rights Council with far fewer members, chosen for their compliance with the "highest human rights standards." He acknowledged that the present commission has members who aren't much interested in human rights and that their presence harms the credibility of the UN. Which left only one question: What credibility?