On The Utility of Touring

by Joshua Foust on 4/23/2007 · 18 comments

Louise ArbourThe UN High Commissioner of Human Rights is going on a tour of Central Asia. “Human Rights Bash 2007,” my own quite unironic name for the event, is set do exactly what the High Commission has done for the victims of oppression in other hotspots like Zimbabwe, Rwanda, CAR, Chad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or North Korea. That is, nothing.

Louise Arbour approached human rights from a typically UN position. Her involvement in the Rwandan genocide, more specifically her possible role in covering up the assassinations of President Juvénal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, leaves much to be desired. Those two murders, by the way, were the pretexts for the start of the four months of butchering that eventually left nearly a million people dead. Otherwise, the High Commission still has little to say about the plight of refugee North Koreans who are brutalized in China (or in Thailand or Laos) then shipped back to the death camps, nor has it bothered to do much about the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in terror from the fighting in Somalia.

It is a totally ineffective organization, which is deeply frustrating, as drawing attention to and helping to alleviate humanitarian crises is one of the universally lauded and legitimate functions of the UN. Then again, the Human Rights Council, which operates within Ms. Arbour’s organization, can’t bring itself to examine the rights record of Iran or Uzbekistan, nor can it find the strength to condemn the hellhole of North Korea, the unending misery in Zimbabwe, the official and brutal persecution of non-Muslims in the Middle East, or the laogai in China. No, the Council can only find the time to blame the Jews—repeatedly—instead of looking at the countless examples of inhuman brutality in their midst.

Speaking of which, perhaps Ms. Arbour could take some time from her busy official dining schedule to, you know, look into the plight of the Jews of Turkmenistan. In a 2003 law, Turkmenbashi had essentially outlawed Judaism, and even under Stomatologbashi they still face excessive monitoring and harassment from the KGB. The travails of the remnants of the Jewish community in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (more here) have been covered quite admirably by Nathan, but I had no idea there was even a Jewish community in Turkmenistan in the first place, to say nothing of one that could then be oppressed by its thug rulers.

But, since these Jews don’t have the decency to flee their homes and congregate into disease-ridden camps like proper IDPs, it will be truly shocking if they even merit a token hundred word press release, to say nothing of any worthwhile coverage. Plus, there is the UN’s de facto institutionalized anti-Semitism. Will Ms. Arbour look into the worrying accounts of the rise of Kazakhstan’s economic thuggery, the relentless pursuit of independent voices in Uzbekistan, or even the worrying accounts of violence during last week’s protest in Kyrgyzstan? Will she dare venture near Xinjiang, and maybe kindly ask the CCP to pretty please stop persecuting the Uyghurs?

I wouldn’t bet on it. This tour is going to be brilliant propaganda by which each of the area’s regimes can pat themselves on the back for being blessed by a blessed UN official. Oh, and let’s not forget Gulnara Karimova’s debut CD—that’s certainly going to be an event to remember when Ms. Arbour forgets to mention Andijon during her remarks in Tashkent.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 18 comments }

Partial observer April 24, 2007 at 10:41 am

It’s an interesting take – with a few things that I can agree with, but it would help if you knew the difference between the High Commissioner for Human Rights and that for Refugees.

Joshua Foust April 24, 2007 at 10:50 am

Geez that’s an embarrassing gaffe. I saw UNHCR in the scoop.nz article and went on a long tangent (I don’t like the Refugee organization either). I’ve corrected my post, and I apologize.

Partial observer April 24, 2007 at 1:12 pm

Another quick point – the Human Rights Council is a collection of representatives of a range of less than savoury and slightly more savoury governments from around the world. I don’t think you can blame Louise Arbour for its decisions.

Joshua Foust April 24, 2007 at 1:17 pm

I don’t. I blame her organization, which is responsible for the Council, for being (to put it mildly) ineffective.

Partial observer April 24, 2007 at 11:39 pm

This is like saying White House staffers are responsible for the outcomes of votes in Congress. I don’t know US politics – maybe they are, but I would imagine the people who actually do the voting bear the responsibility!

Joshua Foust April 25, 2007 at 4:15 am

No, the White House and Congress are separate branches of the government, designed that way by a 230 year old Constitution. The UN Human Rights Council was drafted out of thin air after too many people complained its predecessor was an apologist for tyranny.

A better analogy would be saying the Senate is responsible for the decisions and behavior of the Armed Services Committee or some such. But even then, there are institutional reasons the two are not analogous, like realizing the Senators must face reelection by their constituents, while I seriously doubt the representative from Libya has any similar concern.

And believe me, I find the voting behavior of both Japan and Brazil on the council puzzling and disappointing. But my support of John Bolton’s decision to abstain from it has since been concerned—the Council is a bad joke, and Ms. Arbour’s agency doesn’t do its job. It’s too busy hating Jews.

Robert Templer April 25, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Accusing UNHCHR staff of “hating Jews” is a shocking and egregiously excessive accusation. There are huge problems with the council but those are the makings of the members not the UNHCHR or its staff who are not on the Council. Louise Arbour has been attacked by members of the Council for criticising Palestinian violence and she has urged them repeatedly to move beyond the incessant shameful attacks on Israel to the universal review of all countries. She has also worked tirelessly to get the council to review Darfur and other pressing issues. She is not the villain here — it is countries like Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Cuba and Saudi Arabia among others who ought to be the target of your frustration. Interestingly it is two close US allies — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — who are among the most obstructive and anti-Semitic countries at the UN. You really should retract that statement about UNHCHR staff or prove your case. Blaming them for the resolutions of the Council is just wrong when they have no control over it. Louise Arbour has also done extraordinary work in many countries as an advocate for human rights. She deserves more than these scurrilous accusations. This illustrates the problems with all blogs — people never have to back up their assertions with evidence. I was hoping that since Lawrence Jarvik now seems to post less on the blog it would become more serious and respected. Don’t let it slip back into namecalling and idiocy.

Joshua Foust April 25, 2007 at 12:53 pm

Woah woah woah, who said anything about the Council’s staff? I think I was quite clearly referring to its national representatives, which are shockingly Jew-hating; as such I don’t think it’s out of line to say the Council itself hates Jews (you know, synecdoche).

I said nothing about the staff who work the backend of the council, and if I implied as much I absolutely did not intend to. The council’s members, however, routinely criticize Israel and refuse to criticize Iran or Uzbekistan (a group that includes, as I noted, Japan and Brazil).

My remarks on Ms. Arbour relate to the effectiveness of her office and the UN in general, which isn’t that controversial a stance. The UN as an institution has become notoriously anti-Semitic in the last decade, but even that if not the point I am making. Ms. Arbour herself may very well be a good person (though I am uncomfortable with her shady involvement in the Rwandan genocide), but her office has been impotent in every sense of the word.

If you have countervailing evidence of ways the OHCHR has been effective in improving human rights in the places I listed above, I would love to see it. The UN as a whole is traditionally impotent in the face of tyranny, hence my expressed deep frustration. The ICG is fond of recommending the OHCHR for improving the rights situation in a lot of places – a quick search brought up recent calls for action by OHCHR in Darfur, Nepal, Turkmenistan, and Sierra Leone, among many other places. Has it been effective? Has it done anything beyond issuing a few protestations and strongly worded letters in limited circumstances?

That is my frustration. NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are far more effective as monitors on human rights abuses, and they are far more effective at urging action. OHCHR is just limp, and it will remain so as long as it continues to elect horribly abusive regimes to participate.

Nathan April 25, 2007 at 2:10 pm

This illustrates the problems with all blogs — people never have to back up their assertions with evidence.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a problem common to all media. Blogs have a choice like any print or broadcast outlet as to the degree they want to be taken seriously. If we screw up, I invite our readers to call us on it. And for this attitude, it seems that we are taken fairly seriously by a good number of academics and analysts.

That said, we are sometimes a bit flippant. As a stylistic mechanism, that does invite a fair amount of room for different interpretations of the points we intend to make.

Botir April 25, 2007 at 2:28 pm

The massacre in rwanda lasted three months not four…
due to the reason that the commissioner was involved in the rwandan issue, she was not welcomed in Uzbekistan.

Templer April 25, 2007 at 6:58 pm

“….the Council is a bad joke, and Ms. Arbour’s agency doesn’t do its job. It’s too busy hating Jews.”

You need to tighten up your writing if that is not what you meant because those sentences would appear to be an accusation against “Ms Arbour’s agencv” i.e. the UN staff. It can’t really be read any other way. Be more careful in your writing if you don’t mean that.

The OHCHR does many things around the world from setting standards to investigating abuses. Its special rapporteurs on a huge array of issues have been very effective in investigations but they often depend on states to cooperate. Likewise they do significant amounts of training and other work. In Nepal they were essential in the peace process and in investigating abuses. Their report on the Nepalganj massacre was a superb piece of investigative work. They have also been involved in exhumations and other vital work, not just in Nepal but elsewhere. I don’t think they have done much in Turkmenistan but I don’t recall any institution (HRW, AI, OSCE or any other) having much success there because of its isolation. I don’t know enough about Darfur to comment but I do know that Louise Arbour has been very outspoken on the issue and has pressed it on the HRC agenda. Members of that council have made it ineffectual. Human rights are among the most difficult issues to tackle — no organisation achieves any success on its own — it requires a full array of state, INGO and international organisations to create a decent human rights environment.

OHCH does not have enforcement powers nor can it sanction abusers of human rights. For that you need to blame the countries that shape the UN and its institutions, not the OHCHR. And you can blame Bolton for screwing up the UN reform negotiations and pushing countries into a worse deal than they otherwise would have reached. The OHCHR does not elect anyone — it has no power whatsoever over the Council — half the time the council rejects the OHCHR reports because they are too hard hitting. The GA elects the council. The blame lies squarely with the members of that Council who have made it a sham and a disgrace to the UN.

Americans need to understand that the UN depends on its member states. The UN was once shaped and influenced by the US, in many ways in its image, at least then, of tolerance and decency. That has been eroded by the G77 primarily but it is also eroded by constant ignorant attacks on the UN institutions which often struggle against an array of problems. Before you attack something you should learn about it. There are many reasons to complain about the UN and the OHCHR — you haven’t touched on any of the real issues.

The UN has not become “notoriously anti-Semitic” — but its member states may have done and they have pushed some egregious resolutions through. That is not the UN staff or its institutions — it is the member states. I have never seen or heard a senior UN staffer make an anti-Semitic comment — I’ve heard plenty of Americans make them. Doubtless there are anti-Semites in the UN — as there are everywhere — but they don’t set policy. The anti-Semitic policies are driven by countries in the Arab League — many of them close US allies — and by places like Pakistan — again a US ally. Question your government’s role in these countries.

There is a big difference between blogs and other media — editors. Any editor at the shoddiest newspaper would have questioned Joshua on what he was saying and maybe corrected the sentences so they said what he perhaps intended. Editing makes a big difference. Blogs are great but they don’t come close to good edited journalism in terms of accuracy and writing.

Joshua Foust April 25, 2007 at 8:54 pm

Wait a minute, you’re complaining about imprecise language in a comment thread? And then comparing that to edited mainstream journalism? Are you serious?

Sadly, the condescension dripping from the remainder of your meticulously edited remark makes me think so. My God, you need to get over yourself. And stop making this personal! As soon as you pointed out imprecise language, I clarified myself, saying that it is (some) national representatives who are anti-Semitic, not necessarily the staff or substance of these agencies. Yet still you launched into an insult-laden rant. How telling.

To the rest of our readers, I’d like to highlight the difference in tone between “Partial observer” pointing out a factual error on my part (which was quickly—horrors!—edited), and Mr. Templer’s approach, which was riddled with personal invective, cheap shots, and demeaning stereotypes. I guess we don’t warrant courtesy because we’re a lowly blog.

Anyway, last I checked newspapers don’t edit comments. Perhaps, Mr. Templer, you should compare our comment section with that of some “good edited newspapers,” like the Guardian or the Washington Post. We are mild mannered, well reasoned, knowledgeable, and literate (even those for whom English is not their first or second language) compared to the pabulum you find there… or on most cable news shows.

Or, you could read two comments above the one on hating Jews, in which I simply say OHCHR is ineffective, something you tacitly admit when you say it relies on states to work. If states don’t cooperate, it can’t do its job. Bad states don’t like people pointing out how bad they are, which leaves OHCHR little opportunity to do its job in the places it is most sorely needed. Hence, I find it ineffective. That doesn’t mean it is never effective, because I made a general statement (and I can’t believe I have to point this out—you can’t be where you are if you’re this dense, can you?).

Oh, and my comment on anti-Semitism is born from the very same voting record you concede makes some agencies within the UN appear anti-Semitic. Normal people don’t delve into the internal divisions of an agency when it does something boneheaded. Americans see the UN General Assembly, the closest thing we have to a World Parliament, issuing invective after invective against Israel to the neglect of all other crises (and participants). Americans see the Human Rights Council’s refusal to censure Iran or Uzbekistan (assuming they even glance at a world news segment) while issuing condemnation after condemnation of Israel. Yet, you think American public opinion—which generally believes the UN is anti-Semitic, and notorious for it—is fundamentally flawed? Be reasonable. Non-professionals don’t have the time or energy to be experts on international organizations. It’s not even that unreasonable to fault the UN as a whole for the many, many, many, many, many failures of its individual agencies, even within the last few years.

In comparison, we would examine world opinion, which has a curious inability to distinguish between the Congress, the President, the states, the people, and so on. Sound reasonable? Exactly.

The OHCHR does many things around the world from setting standards to investigating abuses. Its special rapporteurs on a huge array of issues have been very effective in investigations but they often depend on states to cooperate.

This is basically making my point: when bad states run OHCHR, it is worthless. What good is it to have an agency that monitors human rights when it only monitors the countries that grant it permission? Right off the bat, that just admits the worst cases won’t receive the attention they deserve. Do you really think Ms. Arbour will do anything beyond meekly asking some of the worst dictators on the planet to pretty please allow her to condemn their governments?

On a broader point, you not only seem to deliberately misunderstand what I’m saying (are synecdoche and metonymy really that difficult to understand?), but you seem think an ineffective UN is an acceptable state of affairs. But, rather than blaming the broken reform system, you lay blame on the US and John Bolton in particular right after complaining the US doesn’t “shape” or “influence” the UN anymore. Which is it? Are we too disengaged, or did we sabotage it?

Perhaps we should get back to my actual post, which was that this tour by Ms. Arbour will be nothing more than a photo op and an opportunity for brutal thug dictators to announce how much they’re cooperating with the UN while they’re busy oppressing their own people. That’s the tragedy here, not my imprecise 4 am comment thread posts.

Oh yeah, and I had this comment edited for content and flow. Just for you, Mr. Templer. Just for you.

Joshua Foust April 26, 2007 at 6:06 am

To address one more bit about judging comments, here is an AP story, datelined today.

Faced with declining circulation, many U.S. newspapers are trying to engage readers by allowing them to respond to news stories online. But the anonymity of the Internet lets readers post obscenities and racist hate speech that would never be allowed in the printed paper.

Consider one reader comment this month on the Web site of Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean: Some ethnic groups were told to “go back where you came from” while one was singled out for comparison with insects.

Such rants have long been a part of Internet chat rooms and unmoderated discussion boards. As newspapers try to be more competitive with interactive media online, editors are struggling to find a balance between unfettered reader participation and longtime standards of decency, fairness and accountability.

Templer April 26, 2007 at 6:09 am

You haven’t addressed anything in my comments. Ignorance is not an excuse. Inaccurate, fact free writing is not okay when you are making accusations like this — it is interesting that you mention Cable TV news as your comments would work well there. If you don’t know about something, don’t write about it. And if you are called on it and you are wrong, gracefully correct yourself.

Not much is likely to come out of this trip but it won’t just be photo ops. I’ve never known Arbour to visit a country without some critical commentary on the human rights situation. Human rights standards are under attack around the world in public and private. The US government has undermined the legal regimes it wrote and once upheld. The G77 rejects the very idea of human rights. There are a thousand targets that deserve criticism ahead of the OHCHR. You don’t seem to grasp the difference between the office and the council.

Joshua Foust April 26, 2007 at 6:27 am

Mr. Templer, courtesy is a two way street. In fact, I noted as much – I don’t mind being called out on poor writing, and I have been humbled – repeatedly – by the commenters here. And you were right that my “hating jews” quip was poorly phrased and imprecise.

But I have zero patience for personal invective. If quoting your comment and responding to it point by point is not sufficient to”address anything” in it, then we have little more to discuss. This unfortunate, as I believe you and I largely agree on the problems with how the UN operates, and the challenges of allowing horrible regimes to dictate portions of its policy.

Nevertheless, I am sorry for daring to question you.

Templer April 26, 2007 at 7:22 am

My apologies for offending you — I went too far and I’m sorry for that. We agree entirely on the appalling nature of the HRC. Everyone at the OHCHR is also horrified by it. But you really do need to distinguish between those people who are essentially “civil servants” who try to uphold the standards of the UN charter and those nations that sit on the council and deliberately undermine whatever good the organisation can do. The situation at the OHCHR is worse than in any other branch of the UN because human rights is such a sensitive topic and governments are so keen to cover up their crimes. Cuba even runs classes for other countries on how to undermine UN efforts to examine human rights.

Bolton is a whole separate story. He undermined negotiations at the UN deliberately so that they would reach the worse possible result and the US would be justified in pulling out. That isn’t exactly responsible. The UN has more often than not served US interests and the US is better off being a leader within it, not sabotaging it and then accusing it of being useless.

Joshua Foust April 26, 2007 at 7:48 am

You’re right I was not precise enough.

And we agree that OHCHR is for all purposes a broken organization: it cannot do the job it should, and we both find that tragic. And that is the point of the more considered post I wrote above. A true evaluation of the human rights situation in Central Asia, accompanied by real reforms, could have a tremendously positive impact on millions of people. But it won’t happen the way OHCHR is currently structured. You’re right that I don’t know much about Ms. Arbour, but she is really just a figurehead – her agency is shackled by the states that sponsor it. As so long as those states are what it must monitor, it’s all an exercise in trying to briefly escape futility.

And I have very mixed feelings on Bolton. I liked how he didn’t instinctively play the passive language game, but he brusqueness was deeply grating. In abstract terms, I think the idea of someone like Bolton at the UN was a good idea: a critic who isn’t afraid to point out that it is broken. Bolton, you are right, took it way too far and actively sabotaged projects that could have been good.

That, too, is a tragedy, and I have said repeatedly that these kinds of things (monitoring human rights, coordinating humanitarian aid, and so on) are unassailably legitimate functions of the UN, things even the most isolationist Americans can agree is a useful activity. Deliberately undermining that is, as you say, isn’t exactly responsible.

See? We do agree.

Bonnie Boyd April 26, 2007 at 11:23 am

Without getting into the argument about the UNHCHR, I would like to comment upon “unsubstantiated assertions” on blog posts:

Structurally, blogs can have more references than print media or broadcasts because they have links. When reading a blog, one checks the links to see the quality of the backup information, something that you cannot do in the (nonexistent) footnote section of a newspaper or the (fleeting, if any) credits at the end of a broadcast.

Stylistically, blogs write to an engaged audience with multiple choices of internet media–which means blog posts have to start with a twist or engagement. This is not so different from other media, but has a more populist feel. As Nathan mentioned way up in the posts, that includes the “quick study”, including but not limited to “flippancy”–in fact, many other conversation-reminiscent stylistics, including first-person, slang, and other personal and personality-driven style. Readers get a lot of information here, and an invitation to view it similarly. They also get a chance, through the links, to check it out for themselves.

That’s what we’re hoping for–

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