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Media Analyses





CAMERA ALERT: Times Op-Ed Desk Guts Criticism of U.N.


Renowned international human rights expert Professor Anne Bayefsky submitted to the New York Times an op-ed about the highly selective -- and discriminatory -- agenda of the UN Human Rights Commission and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). She included in her piece a description of what she termed the Commission's “strategy of diversion,” referring to the fact that 15% of the group's time and 30% of its country-specific resolutions have targeted Israel. In the editing process, however, the New York Times asked her to delete or sharply alter this and to remove any specific examples of the Commission or NGOs applying a double standard toward Israel. Only through dogged persistence was Bayefsky able to persuade the Times to restore to the article a sentence about Israel and a line of criticism about the Durban Conference Against Racism. 

Dr. Bayefsky recounted her remarkable experience with the New York Times op-ed desk in the magazine "Justice," a magazine for the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. For details, see below “All the news that's fit to print?”

                         ************************************

“Justice” magazine (June 2002) :

“All the news that's fit to print”? by Professor Anne Bayefsky

Author's Note: This piece was originally submitted and accepted by the New York Times on 8 May 2002. After acceptance, editorial demands resulted in the submission of six new drafts, four additional drafts with smaller changes and corrections, seven drafts from the editors and 6 hours of editing by telephone. A piece, ultimately published 22 May 2002, was only accepted on condition — not only that the dynamic be significantly altered — but that the following words (in bold) be specifically omitted:

Its [UN Human Rights Commission] members include some of the most notorious human rights violators in the world today: China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Those countries prefer devoting UN funds (22% of which are from the United States), to criticizing Israel — lest attention wander too close to home.

Human Rights Watch rushed out a report on Jenin and a critique of Israel, while a report on suicide-bombers operating for the past 20 months is still coming. Selectivity, as the UN calls it, is not just a governmental problem.

But one regional group remains outside the target range. The Asian group (including China and the bulk of the Muslim states) has no regional human rights system. These states strenuously avoid international human rights scrutiny and are largely successful in their efforts. No resolution has ever been passed at the UN Human Rights Commission concerning China or Syria, for example. At the just-completed Commission session, the Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights violations in Iran was deleted after six years of denying him entry into the country.

Narrowing the gap between international right and remedy means confronting not only the double-standards advocated by states, but the slackening of standards advocated by NGOs. Their buzz word is listening to the “voices of the victims.” This was the tack of Amnesty International at the Durban World Conference Against Racism. The glitch is that voices say all kinds of things. Like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who recently said in Boston: “People are scared in this country [the US] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what?...Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin...were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.” Human rights protection is not about the self-selection of the most extreme, the loudest, or best-funded of the mob. It is about universal standards and remedying legitimate claims.

That individual's [the High Commissioner] chance to make a positive impact on the international protection of human rights will depend on his or her...willingness to confront the UN's internal resistance to professionalism and transparency...

Negotiations between myself and the editors over the one sentence specifically relating to Israel, included the following exchange —

Original:

“...Those countries prefer devoting UN funds...to criticizing Israel — lest attention wander too close to home. The strategy of diversion has been wildly successful...Fifteen percent of Commission time and one-third of country-specific resolutions over thirty years are directed at this one state.”

Editor's revision (15 May 2002):

“It [the Human Rights Commission] was, not surprisingly, toughest on nations that didn't have seats on the commission this year, and especially tough on Israel (which is both politically offensive to many member states and very weak at the United Nations) and Cuba.”

Following my objections, the editor's next revision (16 May 2002):

“The annual Human Rights Commission session...was able to agree on resolutions concerning just 11 of the 189 member states, and with its customary disproportionate focus on Israel.”

Only after continuous objection on my part did they allow the one sentence on Israel in substantially the same terms as originally proposed.

The reference to anti-Semitism at the Durban World Conference was also the subject of interminable negotiation. Every draft received from the editor prior to the penultimate version, omitted any reference to anti-Semitism and refused to provide specific examples of the failings of the human rights NGO's. In the end result, the language allowed was deliverately general and omitted the specific reference to those NGO's one-sided concerns in Jenin. As such, it opened the door to a response from those same NGOs challenging the allegation of their selective human rights interests. Predictably, such a letter to the editor was in fact sent to the Times by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and was printed a few days later. When I inquired about writing a letter in response, which would have included the substance of my originally-accepted piece, I was informed that editorial policy did not permit authors of op-eds to respond to any criticism.

It seems clear that many authors would have given up on this process long before, and either withdrawn their pieces on principled grounds, or not allowed their names to be put to op-ed pieces which they substantially did not write. Either way, it is a long way from the New York Times motto: “All the news that's fit to print.”

   **********************************

Here is Bayefsky's op-ed as submitted to the Times  -- NOT the version published. Below this is the version the New York Times printed.

Published in “Justice” magazine, June 2002

“The UN Human Rights Agenda: A Strategy of Diversion” by Anne Bayefsky

Every year over 100,000 people write letters about human rights violations which begin "Dear Mr. UN Secretary General" and "Dear UN High Commissioner for Human Rights". Some of these letters complain about inflation. Some are part of mass email campaigns generated in reality from only a few sites. But many describe sad tales of human rights abuse at the hands of government, or officially-sanctioned, thugs. What happens to these cries from all over the world for help?

In theory, the end of the Holocaust began a new era in international response to human rights concerns. For the next fifty years the international community proliferated standards, treaties, agreements and resolutions. Remedies, however, were another matter.

The UN Human Rights Commission ended its annual session at the end of April. It is the central global intergovernmental human rights body in existence. It responded to those 100,000 plus messages by adopting resolutions on human rights conditions with respect to eleven of the 189 UN Member States.

UN intergovernmental human rights machinery is not keen on specifics. Its members include some of the most notorious human rights violators in the world today: China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Those countries prefer devoting UN funds, (22% of which are from the United States), to criticizing Israel — lest attention wander too close to home.

The strategy of diversion has been wildly successful. Fifteen percent of Commission time and thirty percent of country-specific resolutions over thirty years are directed at this one state.

The problem is the 100,000 messages keep coming. In view of the intergovernmental response, many human rights advocates press legal avenues of redress. Over a thirty-five year time span, human rights "treaty bodies" have been created to respond to individual complaints. While their decisions are almost never enforceable in domestic courts, they offer individualized attention to human rights grievances.

There is, howver, one major challenge ot the treaty system's potential success. There are almost no cases. Hardly any of the 100,000 messages sent to the UN make it into the UN's legal track. There are no agreed-upon, transparent guidelines about directing the traffic to the legal system, and Dear Madam High Commissioner doesn't get there on its own. This is aside from the significant problem of resources and advice necessary to transform those letters into viable cases related to legal rights.

As for the rest of the global village, ignorance is the rule. The UN "petition system", as it is called, is the best kept secret in the UN. One and a half billion people are permitted by their states to complain about individual violations of human rights ranging from the right to vote, freedom of expression and of religion, to freedom from discrimination on any ground. But there are less than 100 cases registered b the UN human rights legal system annually. There has never been a case from places like Chad or Somalia, and only one or two from states like Algeria and Angola.

In December 2000 a new UN human rights complaint system came into force giving women the right to complain of a broad spectrum of violations of women's rights, provided their country has ratified the new treaty. Thirty-six countries have done so. And not a single complaint has yet been registered.

It might be expected that the major human rights non-governmental organizations would bear considerable responsibility to inform victims of their rights and to facilitate complaints. But they are often occupied in much the same way as the intergovernmental system, concentrating on a narrow-range of states which are politically expedient. Human Rights Watch rushed out a report on Jenin and a critique of Israel, while a report on suicide bobmers operating for the past 20 months is still coming. Selectivity, as the UN calls it, is not just a governmental problem.

The shortfalls of the UN system, lead many to pin their hopes on regional human rights systems: the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. But one regional group remains outside the target range. The Asian group (including China and the bulk of Muslim states) has no regional human rights system. These states strenuously avoid international human rights srutiny and are largely successful in their efforts. No resolution has ever been passed at the UN Human Rights Commission concerning China or Syria, for example. At the just-completed Commission session, the Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights violations in Iran was deleted after six years of denying him entry into the country. The importance of universal, in addition to regional, standards has not been eclipsed.

Narrowing the gap between international right and remedy means confronting not only the double-standards advocated by states, but the slackening of standards advocated by NGOs. Their buzz word is listening to the "voices of the victims." This was the tack of Amnesty International at the Durban World Conference Against Racism. The glitch is that voices say all kinds of things. Like South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu who recently said in Boston, "People are scared in this country [the US] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what?...Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin...were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust." Human rights protection is not about the self-selection of the most extreme, the loudest, or best-funded of the mob. It is about universal standards and remedying legitimate claims.

The Secretary-General is now searching for a new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. That individual's chance to make a positive impact on the international protection of human rights will depend on his or her (a) preparedness to withstand the highly selective pressure of states, (b) willingness to confront the UN's internal resistance to professionalism and transparency, and (c) ability to know the difference between a voice and a victim. Only universally applied human rights legal standards can light the way.

 ************************************

Here's the New York Times' version:

The New York Times

May 22, 2002 Op-Ed

Ending Bias in the Human Rights System by Anne Bayefsky (Anne Bayefsky is a professor of international law at York University in Toronto and author of "The U.N. Human Rights Treaty System: Universality at the Crossroads," a report prepared for the United Nations.)

Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, is searching for a new high commissioner for human rights to replace Mary Robinson, whose term expires at the end of the summer. In naming a new commissioner, he needs first to recognize the office's flaws and then to look for a leader who can address them and seize the office's opportunities.

The high commissioner, whose post was created by the General Assembly in December 1993, operates in a largely undefined space. The commissioner was intended to be a moral leader for the United Nations, a spokesman for protecting human rights and an advocate for limiting state sovereignty who would treat all states with an even hand. Achieving this goal, however, is difficult. The scope of the job is so broad that its actual focus can become too dependent on the biases of the individual in the position, which in turn can be magnified by the high profile of the office.

One way to avoid this trap is for the office to do more through the legal mechanisms that are currently underused. The operations of the office, based in Geneva, are divided among law-oriented facilities focusing on human rights treaties; staff servicing the intergovernmental Human Rights Commission and its subsidiaries; field operations; and other technical assistance.

United Nations member states control much of this apparatus, either directly in the Human Rights Commission or indirectly through funding decisions. Nevertheless, many people turn to the high commissioner for help with their individual grievances. Each year more than 100,000 letters about human rights violations are addressed to the United Nations. Many describe sad tales of abuse at the hands of government or officially sanctioned thugs. These letters, faxes, postcards and electronic messages go into piles in the cellar of the Palais des Nations in Geneva and stacks in the high commissioner's office in Palais Wilson.

In response, the annual Human Rights Commission session, which ended last month, was able to agree on resolutions concerning the conduct of just 11 of the 189 member states. This is not uncommon because in almost all cases commission members seek to avoid directly criticizing states with human rights problems, frequently by focusing on Israel, a state that, according to analysis of summary records, has for over 30 years occupied 15 percent of commission time and has been the subject of a third of country-specific resolutions.

As an alternative to the politicized commission, the legal side of the high commissioner's office has the potential to offer redress. Since the United Nations began, six major human rights treaties have led to the creation of what are called treaty bodies — committees that monitor implementation of the treaties. Four such bodies, three of which are based in Geneva, offer individualized attention to human rights grievances through a complaint mechanism. But almost none of the 100,000 pleas for help sent to the United Nations make it to a treaty body for consideration for various reasons, some as mundane as a lack of clear guidelines about directing mail to the proper desk and some more substantive, like the insufficient number of staff lawyers who could help transform complaints into viable legal cases that could be pursued.

In theory, this "petition system" is supposed to provide a means for one and a half billion people to complain about human rights violations over the right to vote, freedom of expression and of religion, and discrimination on any ground. But there are fewer than 100 cases registered by this system annually. Not one has been registered from Chad or Somalia, for example, and just a couple from Algeria and Angola. The treaty body on women's rights, which has been empowered to receive complaints for the past year and a half, has still not registered a single case.

The new high commissioner must press for reform of the treaty system so individual cases are encouraged and accommodated. This means placing emphasis on treaty obligations -- their universal application and their implementation -- in internal United Nations budget battles, in contacts with governments, and in raising funds from states and foundations. It also means finding a way to have complaints read, sorted and brought into a working legal system.

The failures of the United Nations human rights system have led many human rights advocates now to pin their hopes on regional systems like the European Court of Human Rights (part of the 44-nation Council of Europe), the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (under the Organization of African Unity). But these regional alternatives have limits, and there is no regional system at all for what the United Nations calls Asian countries -- including China, Indonesia, India, the non-African Middle East and Iran.

Nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International -- the natural partners for a high commissioner -- offer another avenue in which human rights grievances might be aired. But such organizations have often mirrored the intergovernmental system by allowing the choice of states and issues they tackle to be politicized. They have at times also shown a disturbing inability to sort worthwhile grievances from declarations of prejudice, as when the nongovernmental organization forum at the United Nations conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, was turned into a platform for anti-Semitism.

A United Nations high commissioner for human rights will always need to withstand political pressure from member states to engage in a highly selective application of human rights norms. To succeed, a high commissioner must be guided by the principle of universality, yet root his or her work in the rights of the individual person. The appointment of someone with such abilities is an important challenge for Mr. Annan at a time when the even-handedness of the United Nations is widely doubted.

  ACTION ITEMS:

1) Protest the New York Times' effort to delete or minimize specific examples of a double standard being applied to Israel by the UN Human Rights Commission and other Human Rights NGOs. Protest the Times' effort to remove the spotlight on the UN's and NGOs' apparent unwillingness to address human rights abuses taking place in Muslim countries in the Middle East.

2) Urge media critics and talk show pundits to comment on the Times' troubling effort to censor out specific examples of the disproportionate focus on Israel by the UN Human Rights Commission and respected NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Ask that they also discuss the Times' effort to avoid spotlighting the UN's and NGOs' apparent unwillingness to address human rights abuses in Muslim countries in the Middle East.


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