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Renovating the Rules of UN Backroom Diplomacy

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By Thor Halvorssen and S.E. Parker

NEW YORK, NY -- This week, hundreds of diplomats, heads of state, and leaders from across the globe will descend upon midtown Manhattan for the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In attendance, among others, will be Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Gil-yon, and Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi.

The UN recently began an overhaul of its headquarters, a major facelift for what has become an aging and dysfunctional, if iconic, piece of modernist architecture. Delegates arriving over the next few days won't be too inconvenienced; refurbishment of the General Assembly building won't commence until 2013.

Blocks away from the United Nations, in New York's tallest monument to Twentieth Century architecture -- the Empire State Building -- is the office of the Human Rights Foundation. HRF promotes civil liberties in Latin America, and over the past five years, has defended victims of human rights violations in Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As much as HRF would like to focus on every country in Latin America, our resources and priorities are these countries. Our staff includes individuals from across the political and ideological spectrum; our board is made up men and women who have suffered at the hands of despots from the far right to the far left. We consider our work apolitical, consistent, and principled.

In 2007, HRF applied for official Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (EcoSoc). Such accreditation carries with it a formal and internationally credible platform from which to expose and denounce human rights violations from within the halls of the UN. It would have given HRF the credentials to attend UN meetings and conferences, designate UN representatives, and issue statements at the EcoSoc. It would have enabled HRF to directly question the representatives of governments of regimes -- like Sudan, for example -- who recognize the UN as a place where they can, quite literally, get away with murder.

HRF's application was derailed by a smear campaign waged by the Cuban government. Threatened by HRF's mission to promote civil liberties, and fully aware of the organization's effective educational programs and widespread publications inside Cuba, the Castro government lobbied aggressively against this non-profit.

Equipped with crudely forged documents, the Cuban delegation cast HRF as a "subversive" anti-government organization, in particular alleging that then-Chairman of HRF, author and poet Armando Valladares (who spent 22 years in a Cuban prison and became Amnesty International's first prisoner of conscience in Cuba), was a convicted terrorist in Cuba and a former member of dictator Fulgencio Batista's National Police. Among the forged items circulated to the UN committee by the Cuban delegation was a Cuban police identity card that incorrectly identified Valladares' eye color, birth date, blood type, and listed his height and weight using the metric system, while Cuba still used feet and inches at the supposed time of issue.

HRF was told by one country's mission to the UN that they had never seen such an effort from the Cuban delegation, which included numerous calls and visits to most of the other 53 members of EcoSoc. HRF was not allowed to be present and defend itself, respond to its accusers, or question the evidence presented against it. We lost the accreditation vote and have to wait several years before reapplying for consultative status in the UN's Ecosoc.

The sharp contrast between governments that supported HRF and those that did not was telling. Those with strong track records of safeguarding human rights -- including Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Sweden, and the United Kingdom -- endorsed HRF's application.

Meanwhile, delegations from Algeria, Belarus, Cameroon, Cuba, China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and seventeen other nations voted against HRF. The contrast between the nations voting could not be more revealing. Autocracies voted against us while liberal democracies voted in our favor.

This story is just an illustrative anecdote of the herculean challenge of engaging in human rights advocacy within the UN system, where concern for human rights is too often sacrificed for political expediency at the very organization chartered to uphold those rights. Repressive governments that fail to respect human rights are among the most adept at the back-room diplomacy needed to succeed in the UN. They line up necessary votes, often from other human rights violators, and exhaust enormous diplomatic energy to distract the world from the abuses going on in their own countries.

Why does Swaziland, the oft-forgotten last monarchy of Africa, receive little political pressure from neighboring South Africa to address its troubling human rights record? It may have something to do with South Africa's need to count on Swaziland's support for a seat on the UN Security Council. How is Iran, where a woman convicted of adultery is sentenced to be stoned to death, elected to the UN Commission on the Status of Women? Iranian activists circulated a petition to keep Iran off the Commission, but to no avail. Tehran was able to rely on lining up the support of other human rights violators to ensure its candidacy went unopposed.

The noble mission of the UN is fraught with such paradoxes. Despotic governments conduct campaigns to win influential seats while developing nations turn a blind eye to their human rights violating colleagues in order to win assembly votes. The effectiveness of UN groups that were formed to end human rights violations or to protect refugees or to stop the proliferation of nuclear arms is tragically undermined by autocrats seeking a sleek, secure office from which they can easily keep their detractors at bay.

As the UN headquarters undergoes its extensive physical refurbishment, its internal structure is in dire need of a moral renovation. The Secretary General should consider promoting reform of the process whereby NGOs are able to gain access to its chambers, making it simpler for advocacy groups who are free of any diplomatic ties to finally pose some hard questions to delegates from abusive governments -- and just maybe get some answers.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. S.E. Parker is director of HRF's Cuba desk.

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