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UN bares its teeth at Gaddafi

Libya was not represented at Friday morning's session of the Council Keystone

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which includes Switzerland, has sharply condemned Libya and unanimously recommended its suspension.

In a special session in Geneva on Friday, the 47-member organisation also called for an international inquiry into human rights violations in the North African country.

A resolution presented by the European Union was adopted without opposition, although some states had reservations about the exclusion of Libya, which has been a member since May 2010.

Diplomats from Libya did not attend in the morning but one addressed the Council in the afternoon to say Libya’s representatives were now siding with the people and no longer the country’s leader, Moammar Gaddafi.


Adrien-Claude Zoller, director of the non-governmental organisation Geneva for Human Rights, told that unanimity in the UNHRC could be interpreted as a sign that Libya had been made a human rights scapegoat. Despite the controversy, Libya was accepted into the Human Rights Council. Now, with this resolution, it seems as though the tide is against it…

Adrien-Claude Zoller: Not at all. The Human Rights Council is made up of states and if you removed all the bad ones, there would be no one left. The problem is not that Libya is a member – the problem is that when becoming a member a country pledges to show more respect for human rights. Libya is now doing the opposite.

It’s the first time that a member is going to be suspended. But I underline the fact that it’s not the Human Rights Council that will make the decision. It can only propose such a measure to the UN General Assembly.

The issue has to be decided next week in New York by a two-thirds majority. That’s a lot because two-thirds of countries around the world violate human rights to a large extent. Do you think the resolution will be accepted?

A.-C. Z.: Yes, because unanimity will mean there is a scapegoat for those countries that seriously violate human rights.

And for Arab countries, it is an opportunity to speak out against Gaddafi. By so doing, they are not giving a signal to the Human Rights Council but to their own public opinion: “I, Qatar, I, Saudi Arabia, I condemn Colonel Gaddafi and I will not go down the same road as him.” Even Iran can do that. It’s therefore an exercise in calming people in the Arab countries. The Human Rights Council has often been criticised. Can this resolution improve its image?

A.-C. Z.: No, because the criticism was often misplaced. The Human Rights Council is made up of member states and it is these states that have to be criticised and not the Council itself.

It has to be said that the Council has made a historic move because it has given out a strong signal. Another strong signal is the arrival of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva next week. Can we see in that a fresh American policy impetus at the Council?

A.-C. Z.: Not really. American policy changed the day after the election of Barack Obama and that can be seen in many resolution drafts. The arrival of Mrs Clinton will change nothing as far as the Libyan issue is concerned because the decisions were taken today [Friday] in Geneva. With its resolution, is the Human Rights Council making a decision that the UN Security Council would not dare make? Is there a kind of interaction between the two?

A. -C. Z.: Events happened differently. In Geneva there is a High Commissioner’s Office which made a very strong statement by saying that events in Libya were verging on crimes against humanity and demanding that everything had to be done to stop them.

Then the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, telephoned Colonel Gaddafi and the Security Council held a meeting. It was the Security Council which forced the Human Rights Council to hold a session.

The High Commissioner for Refugees, Navi Pillay, also called for the opening of an inquiry. I believe that this international investigation is the fundamental element of the resolution. It will end with a report being put on the table of the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

Today’s resolution on Libya and the paragraph on the investigation are going in the right direction in international criminal law. The draft resolution was tabled by the European Union. How do you view the EU’s position on Libya?

A. -C. Z.: Europe has only one concern: the mountain of refugees who may turn up on its doorstep. It could have been more interested in the fate of the victims.

If there really is a European policy, it could look at what is going on, for example, in the Mediterranean. What is happening from a geopolitical and military point of view is something similar to what has been taking place in Somalia. The more Colonel Gaddafi holds on to his troops, the more other parts of the country which are liberating themselves will rule themselves. It’s something new on the borders of Chad, an instable Algeria, and Darfur.

If the EU wants to see a Somalia on the other side of the Mediterranean, it only has to continue the way it has so far. How can such a situation be avoided?

A. -C. Z.: Someone should have banged their fists on the table. But Europe has done nothing since the unrest began three weeks ago. It’s a mistake in the Human Rights Council if Europe is considered the power that took the initiative.

Now it is time to increase the pressure on Colonel Gaddafi and his clan. Measures are needed at the Security Council, in particular on an air and sea embargo. From that moment on, Gaddafi will have a lot less fire power.

Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dante Martinelli:

“It is important to have an international, independent inquiry to examine the situation on the spot but we are in an emergency situation. The Libyan authorities do not respect human rights. Suspension will be effective now and is important.”

He added that it was “essential” for dialogue to pave the way for a fresh start in Libya that respected the will of its people.

China: “We do not support a suspension of Libya as this would create a precedent for the Council.”

Nicaraguan UN ambassador Carlos Roberto Raffone: “We do not accept the condemnatory voices of those countries that have benefited economically from Libya.”

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey presented the concept of the Human Rights Council in March 2004 to replace the widely discredited and highly politicised UN Human Rights Commission created in 1946. The UN officially accepted the idea in September 2005.

The first session of the UN Human Rights Council took place in June 2006 at its headquarters in Geneva. The council reports directly to the UN General Assembly.

It consists of 47 member states, which are selected with absolute majority by the UN General Assembly. It meets at least three times a year and can also hold special meetings to discuss crisis situations.

The 27 seats of African and Asian countries heavily outvote western countries, which hold seven seats on the council.

(Translated from French by Robert Brookes and with additional input from Simon Bradley in Geneva)

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