05/13/2013 02:18 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

UN Reviews Show Dysfunction of Human Rights Discourse and Practice

By Jacob Mchangama and Aaron Rhodes

The United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Period Review (UPR) process provides for the systematic review of human rights in each UN member state every four years. Every country has human rights problems and ensuring that all are subject to a transparent examination was a useful reform of the UN human rights system. Regrettably, the URP is falling victim, not only to the bad faith of some members states, but also to the way human rights has come to be conceived.

Recent reviews of Canada and Cuba provide pungent examples. Canada is a liberal, democratic, pluralistic welfare state, one whose citizenship is widely sought. According to Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization, it is among the freest countries in the world. This year, as in Canada's review four years ago, activists criticized Canada's economic policies, claiming they have resulted in gross inequalities, resulting in millions allegedly living in poverty, homelessness, and other social problems. Canada was also criticized for policies toward its indigenous population, a long-standing sore point.

In the recent past, Canada also came under fire from the UN's special rapporteur on the Right to Food, whose visit to Canada provided a feeding frenzy for critics of the economic policies of the conservative government. At the UPR, Canada's critics -- both from civil society and governments -- piled on, centering mainly on the country's liberal economic policies. Among the most virulent of the critics was Iran. For years, Canada has sponsored resolutions in the UN General Assembly calling for an end to Iran's horrendous human rights abuses, which include torture, massive numbers of executions without fair trials, and legal discrimination against women.

Cuba, in contrast to Canada, is rated as among the least free countries, a place where citizens are stripped of virtually every civil and political right. Visitors who have departed from tourist-approved resort areas also know that it is among the poorest societies, deprived of access to consumer goods by an inefficient communist system that must even import sugar.

Cuba is the ideological leader of the gang of UN members that defend one another's dictatorial governments against charges that they violate fundamental freedoms guaranteed by international norms. In that role, Cuba has also promoted new UN human rights mechanisms that, having little or nothing to do with human rights, are baldly political, aimed at defending sovereign states from "interference."

Cuba's profound contempt for the Rule of Law and for the United Nations itself was on display when the country faced its human rights review on 1 May. As exposed by the monitoring group UN Watch, Cuba ruthlessly manipulated the process by inserting encomium from hundreds of spurious, state-controlled "nongovernmental organizations" into the UN's report, statements that praised Cuba's social and economic policies and falsely claimed that Cubans enjoy freedom. Cuba's official propaganda machine triumphantly reported on the review, citing praise by Venezuela, Somalia, and other allies.

No one should be surprised by the politicization of human rights in the United Nations. And in principle, criticisms of a state's human rights record should not necessarily be delegitimized by the political system of the state making those criticisms.

But we must face the fact that the politicization of human rights, and the subversion of the Universal Periodic Review process, are made possible, and encouraged, by the UN's doctrine of the indivisibility of human rights, which claims freedom can't be achieved without state policies guaranteeing economic equality. At the UPR, social and economic policies and those concerning fundamental freedoms are weighed against one another. Even North Korea, a Stalinist police state where over a hundred thousand suffer in concentration camps, cited "free education and medical care" as evidence of its worthy human rights record. And when Iran's human rights record was examined, of 53 state delegations commenting, only half mentioned its violations of human rights, while an equal number praised its supposedly progressive educational and social policies, leaving the impression of a mixed picture.

Free countries once opposed the doctrine of indivisibility because they saw that it provides a way for tyrannies to claim they respect human rights. Thanks to indivisibility, the UPR has become a forum in which abusive governments can both trivialize their own crimes and belittle the enjoyment of fundamental civil and political rights by citizens in liberal democracies. Those discussions crowd out and drown out the vital question of freedom, which is exactly what the totalitarian and authoritarian states, which promoted the concept of indivisibility, had in mind. The UN human rights system has institutionalized their strategy.

Jacob Mchangama is director of legal affairs at the Danish think-tank CEPOS, and co-founder and managing director of the Freedom Rights Project. Aaron Rhodes, also a co-founder of the Freedom Rights Project, is former director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and a founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.