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May 17, 2010

Edited by John and Douglas Carey

In this issue: Arizona laws under UN scrutiny; Human Rights Council elections uncontested; non-communicable diseases; a glimmer of hope for UN financing.

Six UN human rights experts declared on May 11th that, “A disturbing pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities and immigrants has been established with the adoption of an immigration law that may allow for police action targeting individuals on the basis of their perceived ethnic origin.” The six, and their areas of expertise, are:

Jorge Bustamante of Mexico, human rights of migrants;

Githu Muiai of Kenya, racism, discrimination, xenophobia;

James Anaya of the US, indigenous people.

Farida Shaheed of Pakistan, cultural rights.

Vernor Munos Villalobos of Costa Rica, education.

Gay McDougall of the US, minority issues.

They also said: “States are required to respect and ensure the human rights of all persons subject to their jurisdiction, without discrimination. Relevant international standards require that detention be used only as an exceptional measure, justified, narrowly tailored and proportional in each individual case, and that it be subject to judicial review.”

The experts also expressed concern about the enactment of a law prohibiting Arizona school programs featuring the histories and cultures of ethnic minorities because everyone has the right to learn about his own cultural and linguistic heritage.

What strikes me as unusual about these condemnations is that they are aimed not at a sovereign member of the UN but only at a constituent part of a UN member state. Nor is the United States addressed or referred to so far as I can tell.

Human Rights Council elections uncontested.

On May 13th, fourteen countries were elected without a contest to three-year terms on the Council. Nominations by each of the five geographical regions had been limited by each group to the number of seats available to that group for election. African states elected were: Angola, Libya, Mauritania and Uganda. From Asia were Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar and Thailand. Eastern Europeans were Poland and Moldava. Ecuador and Guatemala were elected from Latin America and the Caribbean. Finally, Spain and Switzerland are the Western European and Others group members elected.

US Ambassador Susan Rice told the press on May 13th, in answer to a question about Iran’s unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Council, “obviously our strong view is that when there are competitive slates for elections to bodies from various regional groupings, that increases the potential for a strong slate to emerge as the ultimate elected slate.” She evidently meant that it was competition within the Asian group that forced Iran out of the running. She played down Iran’s subsequent election to the Commission on the Status of Women, explaining that, “Iran has served for the most part on that body for over 20 years, for the better part of 20 years. This was not something new, that they were elected unopposed. And we think, in light of Iran’s record on human rights and women’s rights in particular, that’s an unfortunate outcome.” statements/2010/141811.htm

We, the US, can hardly complain about the lack of healthy compete-tion that is shown in these elections, since we ourselves were elected without a contest. The tech-nique of nominating only the number to be elected at least makes it possible, if the group is willing, for all countries eventually to sit on the Council, no matter what their own human rights records may be.

Another possible symptom of the desire of countries not to agitate each other is the operation of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which the US will be scrutinized later this year. Decisions adopted by the Council on the “outcome of the universal periodic review” are uniformly insignificant. The last half dozen that have come to hand all contain one operative paragraph, identical to each other except for the name of the country involved and the citations of documents mentioned. For instance, the “decision adopted by the Human Rights Council” on Eritrea, A/HRC/DEC/13/101, contains this sole operative paragraph:

“Adopts the outcome of the universal periodic review on Eritrea which is constituted of the report of the Working Group on Eritrea (A/HRC/13/2), together with the views of Eritrea concerning the recom-mendations and/or conclusions, as well as its voluntary commitments and its replies presented before the adoption of the outcome by the plenary to questions or issues that were not sufficiently addressed during the interactive dialogue in the Working Group (A/HRC/13/56, chapter VI and A/HRC/13/2/ Add.1).”

Similarly meaningless language appears in the Council’s “decisions” on Cyprus, A/HRC/DEC/13/102; the Dominican Republic, A/HRC/DEC/13/ 103; Cambodia, A/HRC/DEC/13/104; Norway, A/HRC/DEC/13/105; and Albania, A/HRC/DEC/13/106. Does this mean that UPR has no useful function? Not at all, since the exchanges that have already taken place before the Council’s “decisions” require each country in turn to listen to what others think of it, provided the notion of “live and let live” does not choke off pointed questions and comments.

Non-communicable diseases.

Also on May 13th the General Assembly adopted unanimously a resolution deciding to convene in 2011 a high-level meeting on prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. In introducing the measure, Trinidad and Tobago said that diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases cause 60 % of all deaths globally.

US Ambassador Rick Barton told the Assembly that, “Almost all countries are facing emergency epidemics of non-communicable diseases, with the greatest increases being experienced in developing countries. The United States is committed to addressing the mortality and disease burden posed by non-communicable diseases at home and abroad. First Lady Michelle Obama is raising awareness of childhood obesity and the import-ance of healthy eating through a national campaign called ‘Let’s Move.’ This campaign is enlisting the support of a broad range of partners to encourage children to be physically active and to help parents and schools make healthy family and school choices.”

The World Health Organization welcomed the adoption of the resolu-tion, saying that, “Noncommunicable diseases are the leading cause of death for women in middle- and high-income countries and the second leading cause of death for women in low-income countries. Almost 90% of fatalities before the age of 60 occur in developing countries and can be largely pre-vented by reducing the level of exposure to tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol, and improving early detection of breast and cervical cancers, diabetes, and high blood pressure.” WHO/13.

A glimmer of hope for UN financing.

In the General Assembly’s Administrative and Budgetary Committee on May 13th, the following improvements were described: unpaid assess-ments for peacekeeping had fallen from $2.88 billion in 2008 to $1.85 billion in 2009; unpaid assessments to the regular budget had fallen from $417 billion in 2008 to $335 billion in 2009. But Spain urged, on behalf of the European Union, that this matter be taken seriously. And Yemen, on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries and China, noted that about $750 million was still owed to troop- and police-contributing countries, most of which were developing countries. GA/AB/3950.

That’s all for this May 17th issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime, do send along your own views, on these or other UN issues, to

Good-bye for now, and thanks for watching.

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