The United Nations has once again made a mockery of its human rights advocacy. Last month, it announced plans to elect Syria to a top position in a committee tasked to uphold human rights. It’s a laughable move, and one that illustrates the UN’s problem with sticking to its values.
The committee, called the Special Committee on Decolonization, is meant to oppose “subjugation, domination, and exploitation” of other people. And on the same day, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic condemned the Assad regime, reporting on “the most heinous of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated against the civilian population in Syria since March 2011.” The report declared the dictatorial regime’s actions likely constitute “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes, including genocide.” These two simultaneous decisions highlight that the UN cannot claim to stand for human rights while also elevating these brutal regimes.
“That the UN announced its intention to elect the Syrian regime to a senior UN post on the same day that an inquiry accused the regime of crimes against humanity is morally repulsive and logically absurd,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a Geneva-based UN watchdog.
The largely symbolic Special Committee on Decolonization, also known as C-24, was established to promote the advancement of people living in the seventeen “Non-Self-Governing Territories,” to aid progressive development towards self-government and independence, and to encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. The committee debates the future of territories such as Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, and Gibraltar. Yet, the toothless body has few actual enforcement powers. So, it’s hard to see what other purpose elevating Syrian ambassador Bassam al-Sabbagh serves other than giving the Syrian regime propaganda fuel and, at the same time, making a mockery of the people who have suffered at the hands of the brutal government.
The credibility of the UN and its bodies only diminish each time it elevates and enables human rights violators. Current members of C-24, include China, Congo, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Venezuela. It’s no surprise that Syria will receive a senior position on a committee to uphold human rights in name only.
U.S. leaders must condemn the decision. President Joe Biden’s newly appointed UN envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has an obligation to speak out against Syria’s upcoming appointment. While she has denounced Syria’s human rights abuses and has said she wants to pursue a “political solution,” she’s remained silent about Syria’s upcoming election to the C-24 while Biden carried out an airstrike without first seeking Congressional approval. That’s not exactly the kind of diplomacy one would hope for coming from the world’s champion of freedom and human rights.
This year the United States assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council, so Thomas-Greenfield will immediately be in the spotlight. Many expect America to return to the pre-Donald Trump era engagement and participation in international institutions. If the United States is going to try to reassert its relevance in bodies like the UN, it should at least hold accountable those who directly violate the values of UN members by not elevating them to leadership positions.
For all of the Trump administration and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s faults, they made the correct decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 and condemn membership of human rights violators like China. The optics weren’t great, but it was the right thing to do. Today, we’re being told to trust the Assad regime to be an arbiter of human rights around the world. The Biden administration should try to emulate the previous administration’s integrity in these matters and, at the very least, speak out against foolish and harmful decision.
Nickie Deahl is a Young Voices contributor and a legislative intern at the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Her views are her own and do not reflect her employer’s. Find her on Twitter @NickieDeahl.