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Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe: are you laughing yet?

By James Allan - posted Friday, 25 May 2007

Listen carefully and you will hear regular appeals to "the international community" or to "the UN" or to "what the rest of the world thinks". These sort of appeals pop up when the speaker happens not to like some outcome produced by the democratic process here in Australia.

So the speaker might dislike some outcome having to do with rights, or with labour standards, or just about anything really. And rather than go through the hassles and hard work of actually changing the minds of some of his or her fellow citizens, this speaker appeals in some grandiose way to what "the international community thinks" as though that were self-evidently good and the end of the matter. Personally, I think a fairly large dose of scepticism is warranted.

Start with the UN itself. The old UN Commission on Human Rights was dismantled in June last year for being ineffective, biased, ridiculous: take your pick. In its place we have the UN Human Rights Council, with 47 member countries. And in its short lifespan it has already made nine resolutions criticising human rights abuses.


Sounds good, right? Well, not one of those resolutions was critical of Sudan (over Darfur), or Zimbabwe, or China, or anywhere, save Israel. Yes, Israel is the only country this new body has criticised (on nine separate occasions, no less) for rights abuses. Gee, nothing to be sceptical about in that.

How about the UN Commission on the Status of Women? At its 2007 annual conference, when surveying the plight of women around the entire world, what countries did it single out? Saudi Arabia, maybe, where women aren't allowed to drive and are liable to be stoned to death? Or big chunks of Africa? Or Afghanistan? Nope. Apparently the only country that warranted a resolution for violating women's rights was, wait for it, Israel.

Does scepticism really need to be made of sterner stuff?

Or how about this? The UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which is charged with economic development and the environment, just elected as its chairman Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe, which has annual inflation of more than 2,200 per cent and whose economy is contracting by more than 5 per cent a year.

Or what about the UN's Disarmament Commission? Iran was just elected to serve as vice-chairman, with Syria as rapporteur. Even George Orwell couldn't satirise that!

Oh, the countries on that above-mentioned UN Human Rights Council include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Angola, Azerbaijan and others whose advice on human rights might not strike you as terribly persuasive, which is no doubt why those people who don't like the outcomes of democratic politics here in Australia tend to phrase their appeals in vague, amorphous terms ("the international community") rather than in specifics ("here's what Robert Mugabe and the Baath party of Syria think about the proper level of treatment for women and minorities").


Need more examples of "interesting" countries on various agencies and bodies? Here are just a few. Committee on Information: China and Kazakhstan. World Food Program executive board: Sudan and Zimbabwe (for some reason North Korea missed out, despite its famine). International Labour Organisation Governing Body (the one lots of union officials like to appeal to): Saudi Arabia (that bastion of generous treatment to non-citizen workers).

Now, I know that some readers - those who have more than a passing acquaintance with the whole international law superstructure and who, one supposes, get the odd invitation to conferences across the world or are asked to serve in some paid role here or there - like to say that these examples are all on the political side of the UN. Forget all that, they'll say (well, at least if you get a few drinks into them). The real work, they assure you, takes place in the various treaty bodies, the groups of "experts" who report on the many human rights treaties in existence.

So, any room for scepticism there? I think that depends on whether you're a democrat at heart or you're more inclined towards aristocratic, philosopher-king, judicial-activism type of government.

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First published in The Australian on May 22, 2007.

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About the Author

James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

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