Book Review: Failing to Protect – The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights

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Feb. 23, 2015 – Peace and security, development, and human rights comprise the three pillars of the work of the United Nations but anyone who follows the world body will know that when it comes to the latter a significant majority of human rights abusing states escape UN scrutiny.

While it’s no secret that political power, political economy and voting blocs composed of autocratic states and weak democracies shield rights abusers in the UN system, Rosa Freedman’s “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” (Hurst:2014) is a welcome guide to what’s wrong with the UN’s human rights mechanism and it offers up some suggestions on putting it right.

The book is designed for the general reader and the opening chapters offer concise yet detailed accounts of international law and the UN human rights machinery. A later chapter makes crucial linkages between UN treaties and the codifying in national law of human rights protections.

In between, Freedman gives clear examples of the chicanery at work in protecting rights abusers as well as efforts to keep issues such as LGBT rights off the UN’s agenda, while also looking at some instances where the UN has put intense scrutiny on rights abusing states.

In a chapter titled “Look! We Did Something,” she focuses on Israel and South Africa and the scrutiny the latter receives at the UN (in 65 percent of UNGA resolutions from 1990 to 2013 that criticize a country, Israel is the country) as well as the ultimately successful pressure put on South Africa at the UN to end apartheid.

“No one would suggest that attention ought not to have been devoted to the ending of apartheid or to the occupation of Palestinian land,” she writes, but the real reason for the focus on these two countries is because South Africa during apartheid lacked political allies as is the case with Israel currently (with the notable exception of the United States in the Security Council and a handful of UNGA member states).

On the upside, the cases of Israel and South Africa show that “the UN can do something… [B]ut there is no clear link between the gravity of the situation and the decision to focus attention on that country.” Occupations in Tibet, Kashmir and Northern Cyprus and rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Equatorial Guinea, to name just some, are routinely ignored by the UN.

In conclusion, Freedman states that the purpose of her book was to start a conversation “to detail some of the things that are not working with a view to finding a way in which they can be fixed.” More importantly, the conversation is not just for diplomats and governments, she writes: “It is our money; it is our world; it is our problem.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

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