Keep human rights abusers off the UN council


In recent weeks, an imprisoned Cuban human rights activist and rapper, Angel Yunier Remon, known as “El Critico,” has been on a hunger strike against his incarceration, and is reported to be near death. An innovative artist with an underground following among impoverished Cuban youth, he was jailed March 26 after an altercation at his home staged by Castro’s goons, a gambit to coerce him into silence. But instead he has been resolute, and fought back.

Recently, friends and supporters organized a campaign in social media to call attention to his plight. But the pace of repression in Cuba is not slowing. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports 909 political arrests in October, the highest in months. Many of those detained have been part of the “Ladies in White” movement, wives and mothers of political prisoners who are arrested on Sundays as they walk to and from Mass.

In an expression of rank hypocrisy, Cuba is seeking a seat on the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council. The General Assembly votes today for 14 new members. Recently, Rosa Maria Pay, daughter of the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Pay, who died in a suspicious car wreck last year, appealed to the body to reject Cuba, noting that death threats, arbitrary arrests and violence are routinely used to repress dissent.

According to a General Assembly resolution, candidates for the council are supposed to be countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Cuba does not meet that criterion. Other regimes that resort to brutality and violence because they lack genuine political legitimacy are also bidding for seats. Admittedly, the council is not the most effective force, but why bestow membership on those who brazenly violate basic principles of human dignity?

Should China, which brooks no challenge to the ruling party’s monopoly on power and maintains a gulag of political prisoners and the largest Internet censorship operation in the world, be sitting in judgment about human rights? Many are reluctant to speak out because of China’s vast economic power. This is shameful. Russia, too, wants a place. Its qualifications? Two young women of Pussy Riot, the girl band, remain imprisoned for staging a protest in a cathedral; a dozen people face arbitrary prosecution for participating in the Bolotnaya square demonstrations; oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky is entering his 10th year behind bars; a regressive wave of legislation in recent months has further suffocated civil society.

Also seeking a seat is Vietnam, which has been rounding up human rights defenders, political dissidents, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, democracy advocates, religious activists and others. Saudi Arabia wants to be on the council, even though it has routinely thrown people into prison without charge or trial, and refuses to allow women to drive on their own.

If these countries are given seats, what message does it send to the rest of the world? To those like El Critico, bravely standing up to repression?