What does Iran have to teach the world about human rights? The United Nations appears to think we have plenty to learn from a pariah state which backs Hamas, arrests and beats women for failing to wear a hijab, executes protesters and hangs gay people. In Geneva, the Social Forum of the UN Human Rights Council — essentially a human rights jamboree — opens today; its chair is Ali Bahreini, Iran’s UN ambassador, who will oversee a conference discussing the contribution of science, technology and innovation to the promotion of human rights. Iran, which has used facial recognition technology to identify dissidents, is likely to have some expertise here.
It’s beyond a joke, of course. “This is like granting bin Laden a Nobel Peace Prize,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister. He’s right. But to make matters worse, the whole thing is a stitch-up. The appointment was approved by the president of the UN Human Rights Council, one Václav Bálek, the UN representative from the Czech Republic. However, we shouldn’t point the finger of blame at Bálek. While the rules that led to the appointment are somewhat opaque, it seems that the shortlist was very short indeed: according to reports, there may have only been one candidate for the job: Bahreini.
“This is like granting Bin Laden a Nobel Peace Prize,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister
This Asia bloc, from which it appears Bálek had to choose, includes other countries — like China, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia — where human rights are, it’s safe to say, not much of a priority. For them, one suspects, a country like Iran that would not embarrass their own governments at home by rocking the civil rights boat — and which could be trusted to show skepticism about any awkward western ideas of freedom — was an obvious choice. There support for Bahreini also means that any attempt to get the nomination withdrawn by the Human Rights Council, as many demand Bálek should do, would ignominiously fail.
The Human Rights Council’s Social Forum is essentially a talking shop that no-one takes much notice of: it follows that its descent into farce is of itself a bit of a side issue. Nevertheless, it is still troubling.
The appointment is symptomatic of the way in which the UN is abandoning its role as honest broker and becoming partisan. The mask slipped last Tuesday when UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, having formulaically deplored Hamas’s raid of October 7, made it abundantly clear he was not on Israel’s side. Referring to “years of suffocating occupation,” he called, in effect, for an immediate ceasefire from the IDF, even as rockets fired from Gaza City continued to rain on civilians in southern Israel. Israel reacted furiously, saying it would deny visas to UN officials: Guterres, given a chance to retract and save face, instead doubled down, calling again this week for an immediate ceasefire. As the UN gets closer to becoming like Dr. Johnson’s Ireland (a place where no-one “wears even the mask of incorruption”), it cannot really complain if its authority begins to drain away.
It’s true that, although there is a great deal wrong with the UN, the organization still does much to keep the peace — at least where major powers are not directly involved and the Security Council cannot be stymied by a veto from Russia or China. However, with an organization that has no troops of its own, any peacemaking ability depends on retaining world respect, which, in turn, depends on remaining ostensibly impartial. As soon as it, or its institutions, is seen to have been captured by a given interest group, this advantage evaporates. Members will be less prepared to provide it with troops, even if asked by the Security Council; warring parties will be less inclined to respect any troops in blue helmets who do arrive. Slowly but surely the UN is in danger of becoming either just an institution like the medieval papacy, to be brought in on behalf of whichever side can persuade it to intervene, or a well-meaning but ultimately ineffective organization like the League of Nations in the 1930s.
You do not have to be a pacifist or an enthusiast for world government to see that this is something we must avoid if we possibly can. We live in a dangerous enough world as it is. The UN was set up to save us from conflict and war. But the way which it is run makes this job harder. Bahreini’s appointment is a disgrace: and the UN’s supporters should join in saying so.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.