Ingber ’15: Human rights for all?

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, March 13, 2014

Human rights, in the legal framework established by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are absolute and inviolable. The Declaration considers it essential that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”  In this spirit, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was created to hold countries accountable for their domestic human rights records. But after years of politicization and corruption, as evidenced by Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi chairing the Commission in 2003, the United Nations created a new body, the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006. But after nearly eight years of activity — or in reality, inactivity — the new council is no less politicized or ineffectual than its predecessor.

As students, we frequently take the word of the U.N. as sacrosanct. We consistently hear reports from the various U.N. councils and international agencies and simply assume they are correct. But when we think about human rights and the world’s most abusive regimes, perhaps we should consider the structural problems in the human rights apparatus. Only when we fix the Human Rights Council will we find legitimate ways to use the U.N. to truly promote human rights in an non-politicized and universal manner.

Imagine the teacher selects the class bully to lead a group on tolerance and acceptance. Alternatively, envision a situation in which the South African Apartheid regime headed an international commission on racial equality. In fact, the U.N. recently elected China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia to the Human Rights Council. By selecting some of the world’s worst human rights abusers to join the group charged with holding the world’s nations accountable, the international community should have no doubt as to the illegitimacy of the Council’s resolutions.

The human rights abuses perpetrated by these four countries are so obvious that it seems unnecessary to reiterate them. However, placing these nations’ actions in the context of their service on the Human Rights Council is essential to highlight the irony. Chinese subjects enjoy virtually no civil liberties, going without the right to speak freely or express political disagreement with the regime. Journalists are regularly jailed and political opponents routinely tortured or executed. Women are oppressed, and the One-Child Policy strips women and families of reproductive rights. The Chinese have consistently employed brute force against Tibet. The political repression in Cuba is similarly troublesome, as the country does not allow for a free press or a space for political opposition. Human Rights Watch has cited the regime in Cuba repeatedly for arbitrary arrests, executions and disappearances.

Russian human rights abuses are also particularly relevant given the recent Olympic Games in Sochi. In addition to political assassinations, as in the case of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and intelligence operative Alexander Litvinenko, the Putin government has initiated a crusade against the LGBTQ community, passing legislation that virtually criminalizes homosexuality. Finally, Saudi Arabia is the most enigmatic of the bunch. Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, nor can they leave the house without a male escort. Male paramedics sometimes don’t rescue Saudi women suffering from heart attacks due to modesty concerns. Last month a female student died in Saudi Arabia after emergency personnel refused to enter her all-female college campus to transport her to the hospital.

Why does this matter? If the Human Rights Council is made up of the very countries perpetrating the worst human rights abuses, it will never succeed in prosecuting violations of international law. The tangible results of this structural problem are quite relevant. Israel receives a disproportionate amount of attention from the Council — in the first year of the Council’s existence, 11 resolutions directly condemned Israel while no other countries were specifically targeted. While Israel should undoubtedly receive scrutiny for its actions, there is no reason the Council should only issue resolutions against one country. This is a disservice to all those living in fear of abuse — a disservice to the Sudanese, the Chechens, the Kurds and the Tibetans. While the Israeli government is surely hassled by the Human Rights Council’s resolutions, those who live under the untargeted governments suffer the most.

The U.N. has instituted the Universal Periodic Review, which periodically reviews the domestic human rights records of its member states. While a step in the right direction, this review is bureaucratic and overly complicated, lacking teeth and coercive power. A poor score on the review does nothing to a country’s status at the U.N. nor does it truly degrade its international reputation. Human rights reviews must be conducted impartially and equitably. At the very least, there should be a way to ensure that those sitting on the Council do not violate the same principles they are charged with upholding.

Brown students, who are admirably committed to global justice in human rights, need to call attention not only to severe human rights situations but also to the structural obstacles preventing the U.N. from addressing human rights. We have an obligation to those suffering to call attention to the broken apparatus that is supposed to mobilize the international community for help. We have groups that seek to address some of these concerns — the Brown Human Rights Report and Amnesty International both do good work. But we cannot be afraid to speak up for human rights out of fear of imposing Western values or demonstrating cultural insensitivity. While we undoubtedly need to be cognizant of the differences in world cultures, we cannot allow diversity to camouflage true injustice. Brown students have the intelligence and awareness to recognize that true human rights promotion begins with the creation of an international system led by nations truly dedicated to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Zach Ingber ’15 usually writes about campus issues but couldn’t help himself this time. He can be reached at

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  1. It is worth noting that many Muslim nations refuse to accept the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead they have crafted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in which Sharia law governs man’s actions.

    I imagine it goes without saying that under Sharia law non-Muslims are considered second-class people.

  2. For the last hundred years the best and brightest of the
    civilized world have been engaged in the business of peace. In the days before
    the Nobel Peace Prize became a joke, it was expected that scientific progress
    would lead to moral progress. Nations would accept international laws and
    everyone would get together to replace wars with international conferences.

    Instead technological progress just gave us better ways to
    kill each other. There have been few innovations in the moral technology of
    global harmony since Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” laid out a plan to grant
    world citizenship to all refugees and outlaw all armies, invasions and
    atrocities with the whole shebang would be overseen by a League of Nations.

    That was in 1795 and Kant’s plan was at least more
    reasonable than anything we have two-hundred years later today because it at
    least set out to limit membership in this body to free republics. If we had
    done that with the United Nations, it could conceivably have become something
    resembling a humane organization. Instead it’s a place where the dictators of
    the world stop by to give speeches about human rights for a show that’s funnier
    than anything you could find eight blocks away at the Broadway Comedy Club.

  3. Yes issuing resolutions against one country is a disservice to Human Rights. But its a disservice to the citizens of that country who are subject to Apartheid when any mention/action/resolution on their plight brings about an automatic veto from the United States in the Security Council.

    Zach Inger looses any credibility when he calls for “reforms” in the Security Council, but conveniently omits any reforms that addresses the automatic veto for Israel vis. a vis. the United States in the Security Council. I guess its “Do as I say but not as I do”.

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