Hillel Neuer
International human rights lawyer, writer & activist

Rare: Justice Prevails at the UN as Dictators Fail to Silence UN Watch

A rare victory for justice and democracy took place on Friday at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Dictatorships piled on to try and stop me, in testimony before the plenary on behalf of UN Watch, from calling out their human rights abuses and from challenging their absurd membership on the 47-nation body.

This week marks the UNHRC’s 10th anniversary, which was founded with the promise to protect universal human rights and address gross and systematic violations.

Ten years later, I asked the assembled delegates, is the council living up to its founding promise?

I asked them to pay heed to the voices of the victims. We heard them three weeks ago at the 8th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, organized by UN Watch and more than 20 other NGOs.

We heard there from Darya Safai of Tehran, who testified that “the life of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is imbued with discrimination. A woman is not allowed to work, study or travel without her husband’s permission.”

We heard from Ensaf Haidar, whose husband Raif Badawi was sentenced by Saudi Arabia to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. His crime? Creating a website to promote freedom.

We heard from Jigme Golog, a Tibetan monk who testified of being arrested and tortured by Chinese authorities.

We heard from 24-year-old Antonietta Ledezma of Venezuela, whose father Antonio Ledezma, the Mayor of Caracas, was arrested without warrant last year, in a violent raid on his office and jailed. He now faces 26 years in prison under trumped-up charges.

We heard from Rosa Maria Paya of Cuba, whose father Oswaldo Paya, the leading democracy dissident in that country, was killed under circumstances that have never been properly investigated.

We heard from Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, whose fellow Yazdi women and girls are being captured by ISIS, sold as slaves in Iraq and Syria, and subjected to mass rape.

We heard from Polina Nemirovskaia, about repression in Russia; and from Turkish journalist Orhan Kemal Cengiz, whose newspaper Zaman was just violently seized by the Erdogan government.

And so, I asked the Council (which is planning in this session to adopt five one-sided resolutions that effectively justify terrorism against Israelis):

Why are there no resolutions at all—zero—for human rights victims in China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela? Why, on the contrary, are those governments elected members of this Council? Why are there no urgent sessions on gross and systematic rights abuses in Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Turkey?

My simple questions and quotes from their own oppressed citizens provoked a firestorm.

Assault from Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Pakistan

Cuba interrupted first, under the pretext of a procedural point of order: “At no time, given the Human Rights Council mandate, can a representative of an NGO question the membership of a state that belongs to this council. They cannot do that. So I would ask you, sir, to to call to order the representative of this supposed NGO.”

In fact, there is no such rule, and, on the contrary Article 8 of the UNHRC’s founding document, UNGA Resolution 60/251, contemplates suspending countries that commit gross and systematic violations.

Indeed, in 2011 we at UN Watch led the campaign to use that mechanism to expel Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal Libyan regime from the Council, and we succeeded.

Yet the facts and the law didn’t stop the communist regime’s allies from quickly jumping into the fray and adding pressure on the Council president to silence me.

“I think the representative of the political organization needs to be called to order,” said the delegate of Venezuela.  “No NGO can point fingers at the membership of the states who represent the Council.”

Then came the Chinese Communist Party: “Mr. President, the Chinese delegation supports the response made by Cuba and Venezuela. We believe also that NGO representatives have no right to challenge the membership of states in the Council.”

Then the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin: “We agree with the arguments expressed by Cuba and Venezuela and China, and we would also ask you to call upon the distinguished NGO—which not for the first time has been highlighted and corrected in this—to correct their statement.”

Pakistan, about whom we had said nothing, nevertheless felt the need to uphold its part in the unholy alliance of tyrannies that too often control the Council, by backing Cuba. “While NGOs should have the right to express their views,” said the Pakistani delegate, “they should not be allowed to question the membership of the Human Rights Council.”

I was unable to say a word during this entire onslaught. While NGOs have the powerful opportunity of addressing the UNHRC, only states can contest points of order. Thus if no country would come forward, as happened in years past, the council president might well have ruled against me.

Thankfully, however, the opposite occurred: leading democracies came to my defense.

U.S., Netherlands, UK and Canada Defend UN Watch’s Right to Speak

First came the United States, which asserted that UN Watch’s statement “was relevant to the issue under debate, and as a result the Council should allow it to continue to finish their statement.”

Then came the Dutch—who, significantly, refuted the baseless argument that accredited NGO activists cannot call into question the human rights qualifications of Council members.

“As our minister said in the high level segment,” the delegate from the Netherlands reminded the chamber, “the members of the Council especially are held to a high standard, and that is also what the Council has laid down in its founding documents.”

The UK lent its backing as well, followed by a strong Canadian statement that appealed to the higher issues and specifically refuted the objections by Cuba and its allies.

“This is a question of freedom of speech,” stressed the Canadian delegate. “What we have heard in the intervention so far is pertinent to the subject matter [and] we respectfully ask that you rule that the speaker be allowed to finish his presentation.”

Victory: Justice Prevailed

In the end, justice prevailed: the chair rejected the Cuban protests, and gave me back the floor.

With only 3 seconds left on the clock, I responded: “They can censor at home, but they cannot censor us at the United Nations.”

Human rights activists burst out in applause. Cuba protested again — yet the chair rejected Cuba’s complaint, and moved on.

It is a lesson, I believe. When free nations stand up and fight for our values—freedom of speech, the rule of law, universal human rights—then the malice of the wicked is, for a change at the U.N., not reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.

About the Author
Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, a non-governmental human rights organization in Geneva, Switzerland. An international lawyer, Neuer has been described by the Tribune de Genève as a human rights activist who is “feared and dreaded” by the world’s dictatorships. Israel's Ma’ariv newspaper ranked Neuer as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Jewish People in the World.” Hillel Neuer is a renowned speaker who has published widely, testified before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress, and appeared on CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. On September 14, 2016, the City of Chicago adopted a resolution declaring “Hillel Neuer Day” in recognition of his work as “one of the world’s foremost human rights advocates.” In June 2018, McGill University awarded Neuer with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, citing his work as “an innovator” in “creating global platforms for courageous dissidents and champions of human rights from around the world,” and for being “a passionate advocate for human rights, fighting tirelessly against discrimination, torture, and injustice."