Cuba, Human-Rights Watchdog?

Anti-Fidel Castro protester
A demonstrator in São Paulo, Brazil carries a sign protesting Fidel Castro's crackdown on dissent, May 17, 2003 (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP).

If you think irony’s dead, you’ve never heard of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The commission wrapped up its annual six-week meeting in Geneva this week. Among the more disquieting developments, it rejected resolutions to criticize Cuba’s crackdown on opposition voices, to condemn Russia’s record in Chechnya, and to scrutinize the behavior of the governments of Zimbabwe and Sudan.

It might seem ironic that a human-rights commission would fail to take action against some of the world’s worst human-rights abusers. Then again, many of those abusers are members of the commission. And that’s the saddest irony. After this week’s events, it appears things will become even more surreal. The Libyan-led (!) commission elected or re-elected 24 countries to participate in next year’s meeting. Among them are Egypt, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, all of which have, at the very least, questionable human-rights records.

But it was Cuba’s election that caused the greatest outrage. The United States described it as the equivalent of  “putting Al Capone in charge of bank security.” The election of Cuba is disturbing not just because of the country’s history of human-rights violations. One day after the commission’s meeting began, Cuban President Fidel Castro began one of the worst crackdowns in decades. Two months ago, his security agents began arresting virtually anyone who’d expressed opposition, including journalists, librarians, political dissidents, and—yet more irony—human-rights advocates. While the purge was occurring, Havana arrested three hijackers who tried to escape to Florida. The hijackers were tried and executed by firing squad within a week.

That Cuba can still be offered a place on a commission entrusted with investigating human-rights abuses shows just how low that commission has sunk. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based monitoring organization, said the commission is now a “who’s who” of rights abusers. Those abusers often vote as a bloc to prevent the commission from supporting resolutions that would hold them accountable for their violations.

As a result, the commission has lost all moral authority. It’s descending into utter irrelevance. The commission could regain some of that moral standing by changing the procedure for electing countries. Human Rights Watch suggests that countries should be disqualified from consideration unless they ratify and observe U.N. treaties, cooperate with U.N. monitoring and commission recommendations, and possess records free of recent commission criticism. That would ensure that the worst abusers would never stand a chance of election, it would break up the voting bloc that renders the commission impotent, and it would restore some respectability to a commission that sorely needs it.