Friday 18th November 2016, UN headquarters, New York
On 15th November Oxford English Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year. Defined by the dictionary as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,’ Oxford Dictionaries said use of the term had increased by around 2000% in 2016, compared to the previous year. The spike in usage, it contended, is ‘in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.’
Also on 15th November, Belarus tabled a ‘no action motion’ at the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, claiming that the UN has no mandate to address country-specific human rights violations. The link between this step and the Brexit and Trump campaigns might not be immediately obvious; but a cursory glance through a letter from Belarus’ Ambassador to his UN colleagues in New York (subsequently leaked), asking for their support, represents a tour de force of post-truth politics – an exercise in relegating ‘objective facts’ so deeply beneath ‘emotion’ that they are almost completely submerged.
In his letter, Ambassador Andrei Dapkiunas, Permanent Representative of Belarus to the UN, warns his counterparts that over the coming days they may hear many arguments/facts as to why the UN should continue to address situations of violations, but that these facts should be ignored. He goes on to warn governments that country specific resolutions are a ‘self-delusional’ exercise in ‘talking down to’ developing countries. ‘The only possible result of this haughty sermon,’ he contends, ‘is estrangement and animosity.’ ‘Country specific resolutions are an epitome of pointlessness and self-destruction.’
Rejecting the idea that Belarus and its supporters occupy the moral ‘low ground,’ Ambassador Dapkiunas ends by telling other States that if they support the motion they will be placing themselves on the right side of history. ‘Casting a yes vote for the motion will,’ he concludes, ‘require a good deal of courage. I know it.’ ‘Yet I also know that it is the least we can do to make the United Nations a place where minds, hearts and nations connect for the sake of so many people all over the world.’
That the Belarusian letter sought to submerge facts beneath appeals to emotion and personal belief is obvious. Such an approach is partly dependent on a hope, on the part of the proponents, that other States will not be aware of those facts, and may therefore be easily swayed. It is therefore worth recalling the history of UN action to address situations of serious human rights violations, as well as the contemporary reality of the UN’s mandate.
The truth is that the UN has more than half a century of experience in addressing serious human rights violations, and has a well-established legal basis (delivered by the General Assembly) for doing so. Crucially, that legal basis was mainly put in place not by Western States, but by developing countries from Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Asia.
From 1965 onwards, these States began to argue that the UN must offer more to the ‘Peoples of the United Nations’ than warm words about human rights – the UN must be able to step in in cases of clear injustice and serious abuses of universal norms. In June of that year, the UN Committee on Decolonization called on the Commission on Human Rights (the Commission) ‘to consider individual petitions concerning human rights violations in the territories under Portuguese Administration, South Africa and South Rhodesia.’ Pursuant to this request, ECOSOC invited the Commission ‘to consider as a matter of importance and urgency the question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms (…) in all countries.’
One consequence of this historic shift was that it gave rise to a further question: by what means would the Commission consider such violations ‘in all countries’? In response to this question, the newly-enlarged Commission passed resolution 2 (XXII) informing ECOSOC that in order to deal with human rights violations in all countries, it needed the appropriate tools. The authorisation to create such tools was subsequently provided by ECOSOC in resolution 1164 (XLI) and by the General Assembly in resolution 2144 A (XXI), which invited the Commission ‘to give urgent consideration to ways and means of improving the capacity of the UN to put a stop to violations of human rights wherever they may occur.’
The following year (1967), the Commission not only gave urgent consideration to such ‘ways and means,’ it actually put them in place. In March, a cross-regional group of States – again developing countries from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean – secured the adoption of two Commission resolutions (2 (XXIII) and 7 (XXIII)), establishing the first two Special Procedure mandates: an Ad-Hoc Working Group of Experts on South Africa and a Special Rapporteur on Apartheid.
Immediately after establishing these first-ever Special Procedures mandates, the Commission adopted resolution 8 (XXIII) on the ‘study and investigation of situations which reveal a consistent pattern of violation of human rights,’ which decided to ‘give annual consideration to the item entitled question of violations of human rights,’ and requested authority (from ECOSOC) to make ‘a thorough study and investigation of situations which reveal a consistent pattern of violations of human rights.’
Then, to confirm the Commission’s general and permanent prerogative to deal with human rights violations, it asked ECOSOC (in resolution 9 (XXIII)) to include ‘the power to recommend and adopt general and specific measures to deal with violation of human rights’ in its terms of reference. This request was significant because it led to ECOSOC resolution 1235 (XLII), which constituted the legal basis for the UN’s future work in this area.
Today’s international human rights system owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the small group of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean States which, in the late 1960s and early 70s, took a determined decision to act against human rights violations, even where prevailing geopolitical power structures made it vey difficult for them to do so. Belarus’ ‘no action motion’ is a ‘post-truth’ insult to the memory of their achievements.
Their efforts led, through various twists and turns, to the 2006 establishment of the Human Rights Council, which is clearly mandated, through operative paragraph 3 of GA resolution 60/251, to ‘address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.’
The facts of the matter are therefore clear. Fortunately, a clear majority of UN member States understood this when action was taken on the Belarusian ‘no action motion’ at the Third Committee. In the vote that followed, only 32 States supported the motion, with 101 voting against (37 abstentions). (Shockingly, some of the very same States that helped build the UN’s legal basis for addressing human rights violations in the 1960s and 1970s, actually voted in favour of Belarus’ motion – e.g. Iraq, Iran and India).
This represents an overwhelming reassertion of the UN’s prerogatives and responsibilities to address situations of serious human rights violations. Happily, it also suggests the era of ‘post-truth’ politics holds less sway in the halls of the General Assembly than it does in the ‘minds’ and ‘hearts’ of the British and American body politic.
 Nifosi, op. cit., p.11.
 ECOSOC resolution 1102 (XL), 4 March 1966 (in UN Doc. E/4176, p.6).
 UNCHR Resolution 2 (XXII) [Question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms; including policies of racial discrimination and segregation and of apartheid in all countries, with particular reference to colonial and other dependent countries and territories], 25th March 1966.
 ECOSOC resolution 1164 (XLI) [Question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including policies of racial discrimination and segregation and of apartheid in all countries, with particular reference to colonial and other dependent countries and territories], 5 August 1966, in E/4264, p.26.
 UNGA Resolution 2144 A (XXI) [Question of the Violation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, including policies of racial discrimination and segregation and of apartheid, in all countries, with particular reference to colonial and other dependent countries and territories], 26th October 1966, operative para 12.
 UNCHR Resolution 2(XXIII) [Communication dated 3 February 1967 from the Acting Chairman of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa], 6th March 1967; submitted by Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dahomey, Iraq, Iran, Jamaica, Morocco, Nigeria, the Philippines, Senegal and the United Arab Republic; Co-sponsored by India and Pakistan.
 UNCHR Resolution 7(XXIII) [Action effectively to combat racial discrimination and the policies of apartheid and segregation], 16th March 1967; submitted by Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dahomey, Nigeria, Senegal and United Republic of Tanzania; Co-sponsored by India, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan and the United Arab Republic.
 UNCHR Resolution 8 (XXIII) [Study and investigation of situations which reveal a consistent pattern of violation of human rights], 16th March 1967.
 UNCHR Resolution 9 (XXIII) [Question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including policies of racial discrimination and segregation and of apartheid in all countries, with particular reference to colonial and other dependent countries and territories], 16 March 1967; adopted by 21 votes to 0, with 9 abstentions (see Commission on Human Rights: Report on the 23rd session, 20 February-23 March 1967, UN Doc. E/CN.4/940, p.133, para 403).
Feature photo: General Assembly. 11/Oct/1978. UN Photo/Saw Lwin licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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