What to think? The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) last week approved by "consensus" the creation of a "Special Rapporteur" on freedom of association and assembly. Special Rapporteurs are empowered to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems. In this instance, the Rapporteur will review members’ compliance with a UN resolution on these fundamental rights.
The first reaction to this development, of course, must be skepticism, leavened with deep suspicion. The UNHRC’s membership is usually heavily weighted toward nondemocratic states which routinely infringe on citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, including many nations with a majority Muslim population. As a result, the Council, formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has a long record of pursuing any and all human rights allegations against Israel with single-minded fury. So, when such a body, with such a disgraceful record, creates a Special Rapporteur on any subject, it necessarily sends a shiver down the spine.
Still, it is interesting. What makes the resolution intriguing is that Russia, China, Cuba, and Libya – who love to grandstand at the Council – opposed the Special Rapporteur and "disassociated themselves" from it, though they chose not to upset the "consensus" applecart by calling for a vote. Their objections make interesting reading. To sum up, they are all for freedom of assembly and association (sort of). They just don’t need some UN guy snooping around, raising questions, talking to people, and writing reports. Even worse, if they don't cooperate with the snooper, he’ll write a report about that.
They also complain that the Special Rapporteur treads all over the turf of the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO), a famously toothless institution; which begs the question: Who cares?
So, what’s going on? Is there a sudden groundswell of support at the Council for independent civil society, including trade unions? Or is it that unions globally have become so weak that the already widespread hypocrisy on freedom of association and assembly can be raised to greater heights without risk that workers and their organizations may benefit? If so, what better venue for shameless hypocrisy than the UNHRC?
Still, the usual suspects were a little nervous about this one. If Cuba, China, Libya and Russia are opposed, it must be a good thing, right?
At the moment, the Council membership is somewhat more "balanced" than usual. Of the 47 members, 18 are rated Free and only 13 are rated Not Free by the 2010 Freedom in the World survey, which is conducted annually by Freedom House (FH). The rest are in between. Furthermore, in the recent FH international survey of labor rights, only eight of the current members are rated repressive or very repressive in their treatment of workers. By UNHRC standards, having eight vicious regimes represented among the members holding forth on human rights is a mere walk in the park.
Despite our own vulnerability on workers rights issues (the U.S. rated only a ‘mostly free’ in the FH labor rights survey), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was fairly ebullient about the Council’s action, calling it a "good first step in defending a fundamental freedom enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
Whether or not it’s a good first step or a vast cloud of hot air remains to be seen. Still, if you believe, as I do, that "hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue," the world just bowed a little more deeply to the rights of workers.