- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
In recent months, according to human rights groups, Syria’s security forces have used live ammunition to put down peaceful, unarmed demonstrations, killing more than 100 people, while detaining at least 516 protesters, including more than 250 who are still being held incommunicado.
So, what better time to mount a campaign to become a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, right?
In January, the U.N.’s Asia Group endorsed a slate of four candidates — Syria, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines — to fill four open seats on the U.N.’s premier human rights body. The agreement ensured that all four will get voted onto the 47-nation rights body based in Geneva, Switzerland.
This week, a group of more than 30 Asian, African, and Western human rights organizations have launched a campaign aimed at embarrassing the Asia Group into ditching Syria, or at least changing its practice of presenting preordained slates of candidates. Otherwise, they are hoping that Syria will withdraw its candidacy to avoid drawing undue attention to its repressive practices at home.
"Since the Asia Group’s decision was taken in January, security forces in Syria have responded to largely peaceful protests with lethal force, including live ammunition," a group of activists wrote in a letter that was delivered on Tuesday to members of the Asia Group. "Given the significant deterioration in the human rights situation in Syria, we urge the Asia Group to reconsider its slate for the May 20 election."
The leaders of three Syrian rights groups, including Razan Zaitouneh, the editor of the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, and Radeef Mustapha, the president of the board of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights in Syria, signed the letter. It was also signed by well-known Western rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and organizations from Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Thailand.
"Instead of propping up an abusive regime blind to the winds of change sweeping the region, the members of the Asian group should side with the hundreds of peaceful protestors who have been killed, wounded or arbitrarily detained by the Syrian security forces in recent weeks," Radwan Ziadeh, the U.S.-based director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, said in a statement.
"Syria shouldn’t be rewarded by the Asia group for using the same appalling tactics that led to Libya’s unanimous suspension from the council," added Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
In the past, human rights groups and Western countries have successfully derailed the candidacies of flagrant rights abusers, including Belarus and Iran. But a number of countries with poor rights records, including China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia still have seats on the council. Libya got onto the committee last year, but on March 1 its membership was suspended — the first time a member state has had its membership suspended.
Last week, Iran’s parliament blasted the U.N. rights council for serving the interests of the United States and other big powers. "The U.N. Human Rights Council is a toy in the hands of great powers to make secret deals with its members," according to a statement by the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.
The parliamentary committee urged the council to address the killing of civilians in U.S.-backed countries like Yemen and Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim monarchy has cracked down violently against peaceful, mostly Shiite, demonstrators. It also appealed for greater scrutiny of "how the U.S. supports the killing of innocent people and carries out torture in Guantanamo and its secret prisons in Europe."
The ability of countries like Syria and Libya to get on the council has again drawn attention to one of the most frustrating traditions at the U.N. — the practice of allowing regional groupings at the U.N. to determine groups of nominees among themselves, thereby granting even the most abominable countries the ability to secure seats on the U.N.’s various intergovernmental bodies. But there has been little pressure to alter the tradition, even from the United States — indeed, Washington itself got onto the human rights council two years ago as part of a slate of Western candidates.