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'Rights violators' on UN rights body

October 19, 2017

Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan have been elected to the prestigious UN Human Rights Council. But experts say these countries have a dismal rights record and their election to the body is condemnable.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The US government has slammed the UN Human Rights Council for electing countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan as its members, saying the move proves why the Council "lacked credibility." Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, said the Human Rights Council needed reforms "in order to be saved."

Human Rights Watch was also critical of Pakistan's election, saying the Islamic country's human rights violations have been "highlighted by various national and international human rights organizations." Islamabad, however, hailed the move, with Maliha Lodhi, Pakistan's permanent representative to the UN, calling it an "endorsement of Pakistan's strong commitment to human rights." 

"Pakistan's entire leadership, parliament and judiciary have all proactively pushed the human rights agenda," Lodhi said. But human rights activists are not convinced.

The UN Human Rights Council has been criticized for electing countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan as its membersImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/X. Jinquan

"This is clearly a crisis in the UN and its intergovernmental system. The problem is that most countries in the world claim to be protecting human rights but they are actually not really upholding them," Paulo Casca, executive director of the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum, told DW.

"Human rights defenders cannot be happy with this situation. I think we should start thinking of new international human rights organizations, which should function on the basis of some agreed principles," Casaca added.

Countries like Saudi Arabia, which regularly violate human rights on a large scale, have also been given important positions on UN rights bodies.

Pakistan - a case in point

Pakistani rights activists say their country's inclusion in the UN Human Rights Council is actually a setback to their efforts for the promotion of freedom of speech and equal minority rights in the country.

"The human rights situation in Pakistan is very poor, therefore it is surprising for me that Pakistan was given the membership of this prestigious UN body. It also puts a question mark on the credibility of the UN. Rights groups in Pakistan are disappointed by this membership," Asad Butt, the vice chairperson of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told DW.

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While Christians, Hindus and minority Muslim sects like Ahmadis are being vastly discriminated against in the country, the blasphemy law has claimed many lives in the past few years. The government actually supports the controversial law and vows to protect it. Will Islamabad now amend the law that it is a member of the UN rights organization?

Rights groups also point to the military establishment's backing of Islamist groups, including internationally designated militant organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba. Last month, US President Donald Trump criticized Pakistan's lack of cooperation in the war against terrorism. Trump accused Islamabad of providing safe havens to extremist organizations active along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"The country's military establishment is dividing Pakistani society along religious and sectarian lines. This policy has harmed the country. The military generals do not realize that the international community is observing the situation. Hafiz Saeed was declared an international terrorist by the US and a number of other countries," Tauseef Ahmed, an ex-professor at the Islamabad-based Federal Urdu University, told DW.

The abduction of government critics, secular bloggers and activists is another cause of concern among Pakistani liberals, who claim that security agencies are involved in "forced disappearances."

"The crackdown on dissidents is actually a political witch hunt," said Arshad Mahmood, a Pakistani writer and social media activist. "Those who are critical of the state, the military and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project are being picked up by the government agencies. I wish the authorities had shown the same enthusiasm in targeting Islamist militants," Mahmood added.

Despite all that, Pakistan now sits on the UN Human Rights Council. Activists say this will embolden the country's authorities to continue their suppression of dissidents and minorities.

"Pakistan's election to the UN Human Rights Council is an insult to those who are victims of Pakistan's oppression. The authorities are committing atrocities in Baluchistan province. It means the international community is turning a blind eye to rights violations in Pakistan," Attaullah Mengal, a Baloch politician and former chief minister of Baluchistan, told DW.

Read more: Ignoring US pressure, Pakistan mainstreams jihadi groups

But Pakistani officials say India has launched a propaganda campaign since their country was elected to the UN body. Islamabad accused New Delhi of committing massive human rights abuses in Kashmir, a Himalayan region that both Pakistan and India claim in full but rule in parts.

"India does not want to see Pakistan playing a role in prestigious international bodies. New Delhi is now saying that we don't deserve this position. It can't accept that Pakistan's importance is being acknowledged by the international community," Uzma Bukhari, a member of the ruling Muslim League party, told DW.

"It is a blow to those countries that want to isolate Pakistan in the world," she added.

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Moral pressure

Those who justify the inclusion of countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in international rights bodies argue that it increases moral pressure on these countries to step up efforts to protect human rights of their citizens.

A case in point is Saudi Arabia's slow but positive domestic reforms regarding human rights. Recently, the kingdom's authorities granted women the right to drive, which had been denied to them despite protests in the country and abroad.

The Afghan government, too, has introduced several measures to safeguard and promote women's rights. Still, there is a long way to go.

Will Pakistan, too, fulfil its international obligations?

With a domestic tug-of-war between parliament and the powerful military continuing, liberal activists have reiterated their support to the former premier Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in July by the Supreme Court on corruption charges. Sharif was indicted by the National Accountability Bureau on Thursday and pro-democracy forces in the country consider it a move toward consolidation of the military's powers in the country.

Human rights, Pakistani activists say, have been put on a backburner in present circumstances. Until there is a powerful elected civilian government in place that can call the shots, "cosmetic" measures such as Pakistan's election to the UN Human Rights Council won't be effective, they say.

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