The United Nations elected a Libyan to head its human rights commission Monday, leading the Montreal Gazette to ask, "What's next: Wile E. Coyote as chairman of the Roadrunner Preservation Society? Jack the Ripper as president of the Sex Workers' Union? Trent Lott as executive director of the Race Relations Board?"
The commission's chair is appointed annually, with each of the five U.N. regions taking turns to offer a nomination. This is Africa's year, and Libya got the nod. The International Herald Tribune pointed out that Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi "assiduously courted [other African nations] with cash and political influence. [He] sent troops into the Central African Republic to prop up the regime there, and threw his political support behind another strongman, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. He was a driving force behind the formation of the African Union, even paying off some of the debts of the old Organization of African Unity, which preceded the union."
The United States—which only recently rejoined the human rights commission after being ousted in 2001—was so outraged by the nomination, which is usually accepted by consensus, that it forced an unprecedented vote. Of the 53 nations on the commission, only three—the United States, Canada, and probably Guatemala—opposed the appointment of Najat Al-Hajjaji. Thirty-three countries voted for her, while 17—including Britain and six other European Union members—abstained. The StarPhoenix of Saskatoon declared, "The Europeans may have acted upon a misguided notion about the value of not alienating Africa or hampering the work of the commission, but their decision not to vote on their principles harms the watchdog agency and the UN itself."
Human Rights Watch called Libya's civil liberties record "appalling," citing the regime for "abduction, forced disappearance or assassination of political opponents; torture and mistreatment of detainees; and long-term detention without charge or trial or after grossly unfair trials." The Regina Leader-Post also observed: "Under [Qaddafi's] leadership Libya has been one of the world's major exporters and supporters of state terrorism. [He] has not only sent out its own agents to carry out attacks such as the bombing of PAN Am Flight 103 in 1988, but utilizing Libya's oil wealth, he has provided money, training camps and refuge to terrorists from countries as varied as Northern Ireland, Japan, Lebanon and Peru." In Tripoli, the election was seen as vindication: A spokesman for the Libyan foreign ministry said the vote was "a shining victory that gives back their rights to the oppressed peoples" and showed "historic world recognition that Libya has a clean sheet with regards to human rights."
Canada's Globe and Mail noted that the commission is not a working agency and has no permanent staff. The chair's main task is to run a six-week annual meeting where human rights are discussed and "reports are tabled by investigators assigned to look into conditions in certain countries or into violations occurring in more than one country. Having a voice on the commission can help deflect such probes and water down or block resolutions condemning particular behaviour." Still, said the editorial, if the United Nations is serious about these resolutions, it should demand minimum qualifications for the chairmanship. "A democratic government that allows free speech and other basic rights would be a good start."
France's Le Monde said, "The event would be clownesque [where are the French language police when you need them?] if it were not also serious and full of implications for the current situation. Here is a nomination that affects … the United Nations' credibility at a time when the organization must play a major role in the Iraq crisis." The editorial also fretted about the formation of two diametrically-opposed blocs: "We thought that such binary logic, which paralyzed the organization during the Cold War, was over. But the blocs have been reconstituted. On the side of human rights, international justice, the right to intervention, and the defense of the environment, the South, almost automatically, opposes the North (China and Russia abstain or side with the South, depending on the vote)."