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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UN Syria Investigators Release Gruesome Witness Testimony

Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Sept. 16, 2014 – Grave violations by all sides to the conflict in Syria were detailed in witness testimony released in Geneva Tuesday by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

These include attacks by government forces using barrel bombs filled with chlorine, executions and amputations by ISIS, enforced disappearance, and depraved detention facilities.

The 12 witness statements, out of a total of some 3,200 that the inquiry has collected, “demonstrate that few Syrians have been spared,” the investigators wrote in their introduction to the report of testimonies.

They said that “many of the victims interviewed remained hopeful that their stories can prompt the action and dialogue needed to bring this conflict to an end.”

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Pillay Pitches Stronger Security Council Role for Successor

Special Session Human Rights Council
Aug. 21, 2014, Outgoing UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, on Thursday suggested her successor provide informal monthly briefings to the Security Council to avert future crises.

Pillay’s pitch came after she scolded the 15-nation body over its inaction on crises during her tenure such as Syria, Gaza, Sri Lanka and Iraq. “I firmly believe that greater responsiveness by this Council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said in her final address to the Council.

The South African jurist was appointed in 2008 for a four-year term but fell foul of the US over her criticism of Israel and was only given a two-year second term.

The Council tends to act when a humanitarian situation arises out of conflict but Pillay stressed that human rights abuses are evident for years, even decades, before a major crisis erupts and the Council must must do more to prevent, rather than react to, conflicts.

Pillay also said Ban Ki-moon can do more in providing early warning to the Council on emerging crises. Ban launched the Rights Up Front plan last year in response to the UN’s “systematic failure” in responding to the final months of the 2009 war in Sri Lanka.  The plan’s aim is to prevent human rights abuses by acting on early warnings of human rights abuses.

“Within Rights Up Front, the Secretary-General can be even more proactive in alerting to potential crises, including situations that are not formally on the Council’s agenda,” she said.

Article 99 of the UN Charter empowers the secretary-general to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The human rights chief, who will be succeeded by Jordan’s outgoing UN envoy, Prince Zeid, also suggested the Council build on the new Arms Trade Treaty, “which requires arms exporters and importers to confirm that weapons will not be used to commit violations.”

“Where there are concerns about human rights in States that purchase arms, one condition of sale would be that they accept a small human rights monitoring team, with deployment funded by the Treaty’s Trust Fund,” she said.

The five permanent members of the Security Council are among the six biggest arms sellers in the world.

Prince Zeid assumes the role of high commissioner for human rights on Sept. 1. He has been succeeded as UN envoy by Dina Kavar, who becomes the sixth female ambassador to currently serve on the Council.

– Denis Fitzgerald 
On Twitter @denisfitz


Image/UN Photo

UN Human Rights Office Welcomes Supreme Court Decision on Death Penalty

May 30, 2014 – The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday called on US authorities to put a moratorium on executions following a Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty and people with intellectual disabilities.

The Court on Tuesday struck down Florida’s requirement that defendants facing execution show an IQ test score of 70 or below before being permitted to submit additional evidence regarding their intellectual disability.

In a 5-4 ruling the majority stated in the case of Freddie Lee Hall, a man with an IQ of 71 who killed a pregnant newlywed in 1978, that “intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”

“The ruling will affect not only Florida, which is the state with the second-largest number of people on death row after California, but also other states that still use the death penalty in the US,” Navi Pillay’s office said on Friday. ” Judges will now be required to take a less mechanical approach to mental disability in capital cases.”

There are currently 32 US states where the death penalty is on the books. So far in 2014, there have been 20 executions in five states.

Worldwide, some 93 countries still retain the death penalty but 49 of these countries have not applied it in the past ten years.

A UN General Assembly resolution in December 2012 calling on Member States to establish moratoria on executions “with a view to abolishing the death penalty” passed with 111 states in favor, 41 against and 39 abstentions.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz


UN Urges Qatar to Tackle Migrant Rights, Women’s Rights

May 7, 2014 – Qatar should abolish its kafala system which ties a migrant worker to their employer and the Gulf country must take action to end discrimination against women.

Those were the main recommendations of UN bodies to the energy-rich emirate during its universal periodic review in Geneva on Wednesday.

In its submission, the UN Committee Against Torture said it “was deeply concerned about reports of widespread torture or ill-treatment and abuse of migrant workers, in particular under the sponsorship system, and about constraints faced by such workers on lodging complaints against their employers.”

Under the kalifa, or sponsorship, system a migrant worker essentially becomes the property of his or her employer. The sponsor monitors and controls all aspects of the worker’s life and it’s common practice for sponsors to confiscate the worker’s passport.

Of Qatar’s population of about 1.8 million, only 280,000 of these are citizens as the vast majority are foreign workers, mostly from South Asia.

The Committee to End Racial Discrimination called on Qatar to revise its law on nationality which bans Qatari women from passing on citizenship to their children if their husband is foreign.

The Gulf country was also urged to allow for equal representation in parliament as currently only men are authorized to be nominated to the Shura council, the legislative branch.

UNESCO raised concerns about Qatar’s blasphemy law which imposes seven-year prison sentences for “insulting the Supreme Being in letter and spirit,
in writing, drawing, gesturing or in any other way” while human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called for the immediate release of a poet who was sentenced to 15 years for allegedly encouraging the overthrow of the ruling system in Qatar and insulting the “nation’s symbols.”

Qatar was also urged to abolish the death penalty. The country’s representative at the review, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani, noted that no executions had taken place since 2003.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

New UN Report Documents Widespread Use of Torture in Syria

April 14, 2014 –  Men, women and children are routinely tortured in Syria by government forces and more recently by armed opposition groups, according to a report released Monday by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The report is based on 38 interviews with victims of torture and says that torture is most common immediately upon arrest and in the first days and weeks of detention and interrogation.

“Upon arrival at a detention facility, detainees are routinely beaten and humiliated for several hours by guards in what has become known as the ‘reception party,'” the report states.

The interviews, which date from 2011 to 2013, detail gruesome acts of torture including beatings, shackling, suspension, removal of body parts including toe nails and teeth as well as rape of men and women.

One 26-year-old woman described how in 2013, she, along with several other detained women, were called prostitutes and were spat at. “I was hanged against a wall for three days, and frequently beaten with an electric cable. I used to pass out from the pain. They pulled out my teeth and threw water at me.”

“One morning, she and another woman were taken by a security officer to a room where their hands were tied behind their backs and they were raped,” the report says. It adds that on release she was forced to flee after her family rejected her when they learned she was raped.

Armed opposition groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al Nusra, also run detention centers in areas they control and practice torture on detainees.

ISIS is using the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo as its headquarters and has detained and tortured human rights activists and medical personnel, according to the report.

The full report is here.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Torture by Francisco Goya


A Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities?

Eleanor Roosevelt holds a copy of the English draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this 1948 photo (credit: UN photo)

Dec. 10, 2012 – On this day, 64 years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris. The document, whose 30 articles form the bedrock of the international human rights system, has been translated into a record 402 languages since.

While there are criticisms of the UDHR – that it emphasizes political and civil rights over economic, social and cultural rights; that it fails to mention minorities or people with disabilities; and, more generally, that it is a Western construct – it has exerted significant moral and legal influence over the past six decades.

One of the more interesting propositions in recent years – while not a direct criticism of the UDHR – is that the concept of rights have become so ingrained in society (specifically in Western society) that citizens increasingly ignore their duties and responsibilities as members of society.

The idea of a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities was first put forward in 1997 and championed by former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, but the proposal was never acted on by the UN General Assembly – and it’s unlikely to gain traction in the near future. The most significant criticism of the draft declaration is that its 19 articles would embolden autocratic rulers who’d use it to crackdown on people seeking their legitimate rights. Article 14 of the draft also raises significant concerns for a free press.

Nevertheless, the notion of equating human rights with human responsibilities is an interesting one, and some of the articles in the draft human responsibilities declaration – particularly on climate change, sustainable development, and domestic violence – tackle issues not addressed in the original UDHR.

The full-text of the draft Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald 

To know more about the the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights you should read Mary Ann Glendon’s book A World Made New

UN Human Rights Commissioner on Ivory Coast

UN Spokesperson – Do Not Reply

 show details 11:22 AM (4 minutes ago)  

La version française se trouve ci-dessous

French version, see below




                                               19 December 2010


Côte d’Ivoire: UN human rights chief warns of growing violations of rights


GENEVA – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed deep concern Sunday about the growing evidence of massive violations of human rights taking place in Côte d’Ivoire since 16 December 2010.  She reiterated her determination to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions.


“When people are victims of extrajudicial killings there must be an investigation, and there must be accountability,” Pillay said, noting that in the past three days there has been more than 50 people killed, and over 200 injured. “However, the deteriorating security conditions in the country and the interference with freedom of movement of UN personnel have made it difficult to investigate the large number of human rights violations reported.”


The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) has received reports from hundreds of victims and members of their families about the abduction of individuals from their homes, especially at night, by unidentified armed individuals in military uniform accompanied by elements of the Defence and Security Forces or militia groups. Abducted persons are reportedly taken by force to illegal places of detention where they are held incommunicado and without charge. Some have been found dead in questionable circumstances.


“I call upon all parties concerned to respect the human rights of all Ivorians, without discrimination,” Pillay said. “UN human rights officers in Cote d’Ivoire are on the alert and will continue to closely monitor the situation across the country.”




OHCHR Country Page – Cote d’Ivoire:


Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay:


Log on to OHCHR website:


For more information and media requests, please contact: Xabier Celaya (Tel: +41 22 917 9383 / email:

Swapped for Sheep – Women and Girls in Afghanistan

The  following are excerpts from a U.N. report released Thursday on the human rights situation in Afghanistan for women and girls. The report was prepared by the human rights division of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

“A 20-year-old pregnant woman set herself on fire in Panjsher province in July 2009. Before she died, she explained to UNAMA HR that she had endured daily beatings from her husband and abuse from her sisters-in-law since her marriage in 2007. On the day of the incident, her husband had accused her of not being virgin on their wedding day. She poured kerosene over herself and set herself alight. She died of her injuries a few days later.

In Nimroz province, in May 2010, a 13-year-old girl died after dousing herself with petrol and setting herself on fire. She had been married when she was 10-years old and reportedly found life with her husband and his family intolerable.

In one case reported to UNAMA HR in Herat province, a 14-year-old girl who was engaged at the age of two and married at 10 to her cousin tried to kill herself four times due to the domestic violence she faced; her cousin refused to grant her a divorce.

In 2007, provincial health authorities in the western city of Herat established a special burns unit. It handles eight to 10 self immolation cases a month, 40 per cent more than in 2009. The doctors estimate there are likely an equal number of cases in the province they do not see, as such incidents occur far from the city, or the victims are left to die. One woman was found by accident 15 days after she had set herself alight; she had been raped by her father-in-law and brother-in-law and wanted to die. The vast majority of victims are women aged 15 to 25; most are poor and illiterate. The doctor in charge of the unit explained, “Forced marriages lead to problems. Young women married to old men, sold, swapped for sheep or even opium. Sometimes girls are engaged to babies.” These women are under pressure from “abusive husbands and equally from women, mainly mothers-in-law. They sometimes go to mullahs and community councils to ask for help, but even there they face humiliation and abuse.”

One woman was found by accident 15 days after she had set herself alight; she had been raped by her father-in-law and brother-in-law and wanted to die.

UNAMA HR investigated an incident in Farah province involving a 14-year-old girl who was abducted and forcibly married when she was 9-years old. The girl said that her father-in-law beat her because she refused to have sex with him. Her husband and mother-in-law also abused her because they believed she engaged in sexual relations with her father-in-law. UNAMA HR officers interviewed the girl and saw that she had two broken fingers and that oil had been poured on her body (allegedly by her father-in-law), her feet had also been burnt (allegedly by her mother-in-law). She also claimed that her husband had tied and hung her by her hands for one night.

In April 2010, the father and brother of a 15-year-old girl from Ghoryan district, Herat province, beat her when she refused to accept a forced marriage. She ran away from home. On the same day, unknown men in a car picked her up, raped her and released her on the street after several hours. An elder reported the incident to the district police who transferred the girl to a safe house for her own protection.

In January 2009, a 20-year-old woman, from Darqad district, Takhar province, who was engaged under baad at the age of four, sought protection from the Department of Women’s Affairs in Taloqan to avoid the forced marriage. After two months, DoWA, facing threats from local community elders and politicians, sent the girl to the district court in Darqad for a decision on the legality of the marriage. As the court session was about to start, a group of some 300 people who supported the forced marriage, attacked the district complex compound, abducted the girl and forcibly took her to her in-laws’ house. All efforts by UNAMA HR to contact the woman failed and her whereabouts remain unknown.

Baad (baad dadan) Giving away a girl or woman in marriage as blood price to settle a conflict over murder or a perceived affront to honour.

In October 2009, a 16-year-old girl from Logar province was forcibly engaged to a 65-year-old man. According to the girl, the man insisted on visiting her at her family home prior to the marriage, claiming that he had given the girl’s father a vast amount of money and was entitled to see her. During this time, the girl called a local radio station and discussed her problem with the male host. She and the male host became friends and continued to call each other. Later they both fled Logar and on their way to Laghman province where they intended to get married, police arrested them in Nangarhar province on charges of zina. The man was convicted to 13 years imprisonment and the girl to five years. The girl was reportedly raped while in detention. UNAMA HR learned that the 65- year-old man demanded another girl in “compensation” and the girl’s father gave his younger daughter, aged 14 or 15, in marriage to the man.

When Aisha was 12 years-old, her father reportedly gave her and her younger sister away in marriage to settle a blood debt; her uncle had allegedly killed a relative of the man Aisha was sent to marry. At the husband’s house, the in-laws housed the girls with the livestock, used them like slaves and beat them frequently for their uncle’s crime. Aisha fled but her husband caught her and sliced off both her ears and her nose as punishment, leaving her bleeding and unconscious. (A man shamed by his wife is said to have lost his nose, so it seems that Aisha was punished in kind.) Aisha managed to survive the attack; Afghan women’s organizations assisted her and eventually she travelled to the USA for reconstructive surgery. Her 10-year-old sister remains in Uruzgan with the abusive in-laws.

In one high-profile case, reported in May 2010, involving two girls aged 13 and 14 from Ghor province who were reportedly forced into a marriage exchange, each girl was given to an elderly man in the others family. The girls’ husbands reportedly beat them when they tried to resist consummating the unions. Police picked up the girls and reportedly returned them to their remote village, where local mullahs and a former warlord publicly flogged them for daring to run away. The case was exposed when a video of the flogging was smuggled out of the district. The two girls were very fortunate, as eventually they were declared divorced and sent home.

Some honour killings seem to have the approval of entire communities. In August 2010 in Bamyan province, a girl died under suspicious circumstances the day after her wedding. The new husband reportedly took the girl back to her father’s house on the wedding night, saying that she was not a virgin. She died in her father’s house the next day. The police informed UNAMA HR that they started an inquiry but threats from local community members prevented them from investigating further. A team that included the head of the provincial criminal investigation department then visited the crime scene, but local people also prevented them from investigating the death. Following this, the authorities have taken no further action.

Police in Jalalabad…arrested and detained a 17-year-old girl when they discovered her alone in a hotel room accusing her of intending to commit adultery (zina). UNAMA HR’s investigation found that the girl had been forced to marry at the age of 13, denied an education, was ill treated by her in-laws and forbidden to leave the house even to visit her own family.

“Forced marriage is not a harmful tradition in our culture. I know my daughter’s best interests and since she does not leave the house, she does not understandthe world and it will not be possible or acceptable for her to choose her own husband. She has no right to select her own husband and I am in the best position to choose for her.” (Interview with male member of Faryab Provincial Council, April 2010)

“If you hit a girl with your hat and she doesn’t fall over, it’s time to marry her.” -saying quoted during discussion with group of Afghan women, Chimtal district, Balkh province, April 2010.

Adolescent pregnancy is one of the leading causes of high maternal mortality. Girls who give birth before the age of 15, at an age when their bodies are not ready for childbirth, are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than women in their 20s.

Afghanistan has the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. It is linked to early marriage, frequent pregnancies, and lack of awareness linked to low levels of literacy, among other factors. This amounts to around 24,000 deaths per year, many of them girls under the age of 18. A child born to a girl under the age of 18 has a 60 per cent greater chance of dying in the first year of life. In Afghanistan, maternal mortality represents ten times more deaths (24,000 per annum) than conflict-related civilian deaths (UNAMA HR recorded 2,412 conflict-related civilian deaths in 2009159).

Early marriage harms not only the girl child but also the infant she bears. Premature birth, low birth weight and poor mental and physical growth are frequent characteristics of babies born to young mothers.

Many women and medical personnel interviewed by UNAMA HR said that child brides often have little or no experience or understanding of how to care for newborn babies. They mentioned incidents where young inexperienced mothers accidentally burned or  suffocated babies…Medical practitioners described to UNAMA HR the gynaecological problems that arise from early sex and childbirth. They include vaginal laceration, ruptured uterus, and urethra-vaginal fistula.

The adult literacy rate for all Afghans over 15 years old is 28 per cent; for women alone it is 12.6 per cent. Girls who marry as children almost never continue with their education...Girls with eight or more years of education are less likely to marry young than girls with zero to three years of school. Compulsory education up until the age of 16 significantly decreases the chances of early marriage.

In 2009, the Khost health department reported a case to UNAMA HR where it admitted to hospital a 17-year-old girl whose father had attempted to cut her throat after she refused to marry a man he had selected. Authorities took no criminal action against the girl’s father, treating the case as a private family dispute.”