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UN Week – 3/7/11

March 11, 2011

by John and Douglas Carey, editors,

Contents of this issue: Libya suspended in Human Rights Council.

           A very unusual event took place in the UN General Assembly on March 1st. The Assembly chose to suspend Libya’s rights of membership in the UN Human Rights Council, and did so by consensus, without a vote.

          First, a word about how consensus decision-making works at the UN. If there is an issue on which almost all members agree but on which a few do not want to vote, then the Chair can announce that s/he assumes the measure is to be adopted by consensus. Those opposed can explain that if a vote were taken, they would vote against, but they do not want to “break consensus.” So the chair brings down the gavel and states that the measure is adopted by consensus.

          A variation is adoption without a vote, which can happen when no member sees a need to explain on the record a position against the proposal. The chair simply announces that the proposal is adopted without a vote, which is tantamount to unanimity.

           The Human Rights Council had recommended suspension of Libya from its ranks on February 25th. The Council was created by the Assembly five years ago by a resolution that included a mechanism for suspension of any member committing gross violations.

           During the General Assembly’s debate there were those country’s whose representatives suggested that “crimes against humanity” were being committed in Libya. The Maldives said that unleashing violence against people trying to exercise their rights in all likelihood constituted such crimes. Liechtenstein expressed concern at the possibility that crimes against humanity were being committed in Libya “at this very moment.”

           New Zealand said that the Libyan regime’s systematic use of force could constitute crimes against humanity, while Lebanon recalled that human rights violations in Libya had gone on for years, the most blatant being in 1952 when Lebanese leaders were kidnapped and disappeared. Colombia referred to one of the most “embarrassing and shameful” situations in recent history.

 Paragraph 8 of Assembly resolution 60/2531, which created the Council, states that, “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.” Panama noted that all States had a responsibility to protect their own people.

Several representatives stressed non-intervention. Venezuela stated, “The Libyan people must find their own destiny without foreign interference. No foreign force was authorized to intervene in the internal affairs of Libya.” He praised “friendly” Security Council members who had prevented resolution 1970 (2011) from becoming “an instrument of war.”

Susan Rice of the US responded that she “utterly rejected the willful and ugly distortions” by Venezuela, adding that it was “shameful” that one Member State would manipulate the occasion “to spread lies, foster fear and engender hate.” Venezuela’s representative fired back by saying that he could not understand that a country with such a long history of human rights violations worldwide could make such a statement.

Cuba expressed concern about statements of the US and EU on their consideration of military action, stating that it had opposed the suspension clause in the resolution creating the Human Rights Council. Nicaragua charged super-Powers with inciting violence to justify military intervention.

Russia cautioned against interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country and noted that the suspension of Libya did not mean its permanent removal from the Council, nor that there was now a vacancy to be filled. And it is true that the enabling language does not mention removal, but nor does it mention reinstatement of membership rights after suspension. The Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand expressed concern for their expatriates in Libya, as many as 50,000 in the case of Bangladesh.

While Libya has suffered a severe rebuke, it may make little practical difference. Even without the rights of a Council member, it can still participate in Council proceedings in the status of an Observer Government. That is what we, the United States, did for several years while spurning the Council as unworthy of our participation because of some members’ votes critical of certain Israeli Government actions.

For further information about Libya’s suspension, see UN press release GA/11050 of 1 March 2011.

That’s all for this March 7th issue of United Nations Week: News and Views. We’ll be back with the next issue. Meantime, send along your own views on these or other UN-related issues to Especially, let us know if you have heard about Libya’s Human Rights Council suspension in any other news medium, print, radio, television or internet.


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