Updated: May 14, 2009 at 12:00 am
In what Interior Minister Roberto Maroni calls a "historic" development, the Italian navy has begun intercepting boatloads of stowaways bound for Italian soil and escorting them back to Libya. The strategy marks a major shift for Italy, which previously allowed these immigrants to come ashore and apply for political or humanitarian asylum.
Italy's new policy prompted expressions of "deep concern" from the United Nations, which might be troubled by Libya's propensity to torture. But one Italian politician parried the U.N.'s criticism with a bit of mock astonishment: "We don't understand how the U.N. can say these things about Libya, when it was only [in 2003] that Libya chaired the U.N. Commission on Human Rights."
Libya's chairmanship marked the beginning of an especially disgraceful period for the commission. The following year, newly elected Sudan divided its time between upholding the rights of man in the U.N. and waging genocide in Darfur.
Before long, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan realized that the commission's reputation was beyond repair.. He proposed a complete overhaul, but by the time his plan came before the General Assembly in 2006, his "once-promising reform proposal" had become "an ugly sham," in the words of the New York Times.
In the end, only four countries, including the U.S., opposed Annan's proposal. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) became the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), changed in little but acronym, and a new combination of repressive regimes started launching broadsides against Israel while stowing their own abuses safely out of sight.
Now the Obama administration has reversed U.S. policy by seeking and winning election to the UNHRC. We join China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Russia and 42 other states charged with promoting and protecting human rights.
Susan Rice, the United States' new U.N. ambassador, is fully aware that the council includes some of the world's worst offenders.
After the ballot, she said, "Obviously there will always be some countries whose respect and record on human rights is sub-par."
But in the self-denigrating fashion typical of the current administration, she was quick to add, "We have not been perfect ourselves."
Rice is confident that the U.S. can steer the UNHRC in the right direction. But that will never happen if we insist on projecting a moral equivalency between the U.S. and whoever else happens to be serving on the council.
When President Barack Obama spoke to the Summit of the Americas on April 17, he said, "I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations." That sort of modesty might serve its purpose in Trinidad and Tobago, but when it comes to the UNHRC, the oppressed and the terrified will look to the U.S. to play a leading role. They have no interest in seeing us enter into equal partnership with the murderers and dictators currently issuing solemn pronouncements on human rights.
The very same day Obama addressed the Summit of the Americas, a famous Palestinian man appeared in Geneva, Switzerland, to speak to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, chaired by a Libyan woman named Najat Al-Hajjaji.
This man was the doctor who, along with five Bulgarian nurses, was imprisoned and tortured after the Libyan government accused the group of spreading AIDS. His treatment included electric shocks to the genitals, having his fingernails ripped out, and being raped by a police dog, although it's not known if he was waterboarded.
He had spoken for 20 seconds when the chair interrupted, demanding that he confine his comments to the "objectives and principles of the conference." He began anew, quoting the conference's draft declaration to justify his remarks - which, in the mind of any fair-minded observer, hardly needed justification - but as soon as he mentioned his own experience in Libya, the chair interrupted him again.
During a third attempt, while the man was urging the UN to condemn countries that "scapegoat, falsely arrest, and torture vulnerable minorities," the Libyan chair suddenly recognized a point of order from the Libyan representative. Then she turned the floor over to the next speaker in line, a delegate from the Arab Commission on Human Rights.
Obama has to make sure that, with our new position on the UNHRC, the U.S. doesn't become ballast for this refuge of tyrants. The Palestinian torture victim silenced on April 17 doesn't need another Western democracy too bashful to rock the boat.
Cole, of Colorado Springs, is a writer, translator and political organizer. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.