What a joke! The United Nations' brand new Human Rights Council Advisory Committee held its first session this week in Geneva and - as unbelievable as it looks - elected a Cuban official to chair the 18-country group.
As if human rights bureaucrats and their bosses at foreign ministries around the world didn't have enough sense of ridicule by appointing the nominee of a five-decade old dictatorship that bans free speech and freedom of assembly to chair the new group, they elected Egypt and Russia - not precisely human rights champions - to occupy two of three vice chairmanships alongside South Korea.
Cuban jurist Miguel Alfonso Martinez, a former spokesman for the Cuban foreign ministry, was elected to chair the advisory committee at the panel's opening session Monday.
The Cuban regime's Radio Rebelde said on its Web site that Martinez was nominated by the Cuban government, but under Council rules is "expected to work independently." (Columnist's footnote: Yeah, sure!)
The Advisory Committee is to act as the main think tank for the two-year-old Human Rights Council, which replaced the widely discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission after widespread criticism that the latter had become a mutual protection club for the world's worst human rights offenders.
You may remember that one of the main concerns of many democratic countries when the U.N. General Assembly created the Council in 2006 was that the new rights panel would follow the same path as its predecessor. In the past, human rights violators such as Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia would trade positions at other U.N. committees with other countries to assure themselves seats on the Human Rights body.
To avoid that, the General Assembly asked the new Human Rights Council to create an independent Advisory Committee of human rights experts. U.N. officials said at the time that members of the Advisory Committee would make their decisions independently.
A U.N. press release from Geneva after the opening of the Committee's two-week inaugural session said that Martinez had told the group that "being the first chair of this new body in the hypersensitive area of human rights was a great privilege for him. This was the most emotionally moving experience he had had."
Indeed, Martinez probably couldn't believe it himself, considering that Cuba is considered by independent international human rights groups as one of the world's oldest and most change-resistant police states. Despite Cuba's signing earlier this year of U.N. charter on Civil and Political Rights, not much has changed on the island on the human rights front.
Amnesty International recently called on the Cuban government to release 58 dissidents jailed five years ago in a roundup that the group calls "the largest crackdown against political opponents in Cuba."
"The only crime committed by these 58 is the peaceful exercise of their fundamental freedoms," the group said. "Amnesty International considers them to be prisoners of conscience."
According to a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year, Cuba continues to restrict "nearly all avenues of political dissent. Cuban citizens have been systematically deprived of their fundamental rights to free expression, privacy, association, movement, and due process of law."
Could Martinez really act as an "independent expert," as U.N. and Cuban officials claim? I asked Amnesty International.
"It's not possible that he can fulfill that part of his mission," said Holly Ackerman, a Cuban affairs specialist with Amnesty International's U.S. offices. "The particular demands of a communist regime are that you have to be in solidarity with the government, you have to be 'integrated.' You represent the revolution, not yourself."
My opinion: I agree. The U.N. Human Rights Council has turned out to be as politicized as its discredited predecessor. Some of its most active members are Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia, and the group is acting accordingly.
The Council's biggest hope for redemption was to have a truly independent advisory committee that would keep it from protecting human rights violators, and ideally would even denounce any deviations from the Council's original mission.
But now that the Advisory Committee will be headed by a Cuban government-nominated official, such hopes have vanished. The U.N. has made a mockery of its human rights mission.