On March 28, the United Nations Human Rights Council elected, by unanimous vote, a special rapporteur on the "situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967." The nominee, Richard Falk, a veteran political activist and emeritus professor of law at Princeton University, was opposed by Israel for, among other statements, equating the situation in the Palestinian territories with the Nazi Holocaust. According to a spokesman for Israeli's foreign ministry, Falk will not be allowed through passport control in Tel Aviv.
"This is a very outrageous statement to us and a personal insult to every Israeli," said spokesman Arye Mekel. "How could he then come up with an objective conclusion about what Israel does or doesn't do in Gaza?"
To the Israelis, Falk's appointment is but another indication that the Human Rights Council (UN-HRC), which replaced the corrupt United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in 2006, amounts to little more than a new acronym obscuring old anti-Israel bias. When the UNCHR was disbanded, The New York Times called the organization a "disgrace," conceding that, on this one point, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton was undeniably "right." In assembling the replacement body, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the new council would provide the "United Nations the chance—a much-needed chance—to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world." The UN-HRC, he claimed, "will breathe new life into all our work for human rights."
So has the UN-HRC purged itself of its political biases? Has it, at long last, expelled human rights violators from its ranks? Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Human Rights Watch's Peggy Hicks surveyed the recent record of the revamped council with dismay: "In its first year, the council shied away from taking action on most human rights crises, dropped its scrutiny of Iran and Uzbekistan, and managed to condemn Israel's human rights record without addressing violations by Hezbollah and Palestinian armed groups."
The nomination of Richard Falk is further evidence of UN backsliding in its commitment to fairly scrutinizing human rights. Not only has Falk served in a similar role in the past—he was on a 2001 special panel investigating Israeli human rights violations, suggesting that UN-HRC is recruiting from the old UNCHR pool—but his record is considerably worse than the recent news reports would suggest.
For instance, in 1979, not long after the inauguration of Iran's totalitarian and theocratic "revolution," Falk, then chairman of something called U.S. Citizens Concerned about Freedom in Iran, was granted space on The New York Times opinion page to shill for the incoming government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A month prior, Falk had flown to Paris with his comrade Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general and inveterate friend of dictators, to discuss "social justice" (Clark's phrase) with the then-exiled religious leader. Upon returning, Clark told The Washington Post that he was "deeply impressed by the nature and depth and purpose of the movement in Iran that has established the opportunity for a new freedom."
By the time Falk published his impressions of the Paris pilgrimage, the Ayatollah's gang of fundamentalist squadristi—officially known as "secret revolutionary tribunals"—was already meting out executions with little concern for due process. Nevertheless, in his Times opinion piece, Falk upbraided President Jimmy Carter for "associating [Khomeini] with religious fanaticism," and declared that "the depiction of him as fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude religious prejudices seems certainly and happily false." Indeed, "his entourage of close advisers is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals."
This was too much for the Times' preeminent liberal columnist, Anthony Lewis, who ripped Falk's column as "outstandingly silly." It was clear to those not blinded by ideology, Lewis wrote, that the "Ayatollah has set out, without equivocation or disguise, to turn the clock back and give Iran a theocratic regime." With hindsight, it is perhaps tempting to see Lewis's column as prescient, and Falk as merely a naïve, anti-Shah activist duped by the regime's unsophisticated propaganda apparatus. But as contemporaneous news accounts make clear, the theocratic and dictatorial character of the Khomeini clique was widely acknowledged by Middle East observers well before the hostage crisis.
Falk's conception of human rights—remember, this is what he is tasked to monitor for the UN—is also colored by his warm feelings toward Tehran. Ann Elizabeth Mayer, an associate professor of legal studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, noted in 2000 that "The international law scholar Richard Falk, who sympathizes with the Islamic Republic and who opines that 'Islam' is entitled to have its own 'civilizational approach' to human rights, embodies the tendency to imagine that Iranians need more Islamic culture, not the human rights protections valued by people in the West."
But this is small beer compared to Falk's latest intellectual pursuit. In 2004, Falk wrote the introduction to The New Pearl Harbor by David Ray Griffin, a book arguing that the American government was behind the attacks of September 11, 2001. Of the vast trove of 9/11 "truth" material available in print and online, it was Griffin, Falk wrote in his foreword, who "has had the patience, the fortitude, the courage, and the intelligence to put the pieces together in a single coherent account." For Griffin's latest book, Debunking the 9/11 Debunkers, Falk provided a dust jacket endorsement: "David Ray Griffin has established himself—alongside Seymour Hersh—as America's number one bearer of unpleasant, yet necessary, public truths."
As media coverage of Falk's nomination has metastasized, it has unfortunately obscured news of UN-HRC's nomination of the Swiss socialist Jean Ziegler to the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee. A brief recapitulation of Ziegler's qualifications: In 1996, he defended Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy not only on free speech grounds—an admirable position, after all—but further celebrated his supposed scholarship. "All your work as a writer and philosopher," Ziegler wrote, "attests to the rigor of your analysis and the unwavering honesty of your intentions. It makes you one of the leading thinkers of our time." He lauded the Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, a leader who "has history and morality with him." He offered his "total support for the Cuban revolution." He recently told a Lebanese newspaper the he "refuse[d] to describe Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. It is a national movement of resistance."
Then there's Ziegler's friendship with Libyan dictator Moammar Kaddafi. In 1989, according to a report in Neue Zurcher Zeitung (one that confirms research done by UN Watch), Ziegler helped establish the Kaddafi Prize for Human Rights. In 2002, Ziegler himself received the prize, which he shared with, among others, Roger Garaudy. Previous recipients include Fidel Castro, Louis Farrakhan, and Hugo Chavez.
Outside Turtle Bay, it is obvious that those who believe the 9/11 attacks were a government sponsored "false flag" operation and who believe in the moral probity of Kaddafi bequeathing cash prizes to serial human rights abusers have no business adjudicating human rights violations at the United Nations. In 2006, the current administration was widely criticized for opposing the establishment of the UN-HRC; the United States was the only industrialized country, besides Israel, to oppose its creation. In light of the appointment of Richard Falk and Jean Ziegler, it is similarly obvious that this was the correct decision.
While it is gratifying that the commission that long provided political cover for vile and undemocratic regimes such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Libya was publicly disgraced and dismantled, it is a disheartening, though utterly predictable, that its replacement is following in its footsteps.
Michael C. Moynihan is a reason associate editor.