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A quiet force for civilian and political rights

Three times a year, a little-known expert panel gathers in Geneva and New York with a monumental task: upholding people's civil and political rights.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Three times a year, a little-known expert panel gathers in New York and Geneva with a monumental task: upholding people's civil and political rights around the world.

The job of the 18 independent experts who sit on the United Nations Human Rights Committee is to ensure that 172 nations live up to their commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Another six countries — China, Comoros, Cuba, Nauru, Palau and Saint Lucia — have signed but not ratified the treaty, which took effect in 1976. Nineteen others have taken no action on it.

Panel members, each from different countries to provide a broad geographical representation, are accustomed to wading into controversy and meting out strong criticisms, more often towards authoritarian regimes but also against some nations widely regarded as upholding individual freedoms.

In 2014, for example, the panel found the United States' civil rights record lacking on national security matters like electronic surveillance, targeted drone killings and secret detentions. Other concerns were the solitary confinement of prisoners; life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders; racial disparities with the death penalty; gun and domestic violence; and laws hindering felons from voting.

The panel raised concerns in 2015 about Russian discrimination and hate crimes against members of the LGBT community and alleged rights violations in the Crimea, including residents forced to take on Russian nationality and restricted access to Ukrainian language materials and media.

Last year, it criticized Australia's non-compliance on immigrant detention centers for children, a marriage equality postal survey that put rights to a vote and sterilization of disable women and girls.

A 'dangerous' climate

The current July session was called to handle reports from Algeria, Bahrain, Laos, Liberia and Lithuania, and to examine two countries — Eritrea and Gambia — that did not submit reports as required. It also was asked to discuss issues on Angola, Germany, Israel, Niger and Vietnam.It opened with a reminder from Antti Korkeakivi, the U.N. official in charge of "capacity building" and "harmonization" of human rights treaties, that people's basic human rights and those who advocate for the rights of others are "increasingly under attack" in today's world, according to a summary of the July 2 meeting from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.

He recalled the global call to action by Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who heads OHCHR, in an opening statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June.

Zeid, a Jordanian prince, wondered why the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — adopted under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee — and human rights laws that followed are "the object of so much attack now — not only from the violent extremists, like the Takfiris, but also from authoritarian leaders, populists, demagogues, cultural relativists, some Western academics, and even some U.N. officials?"

"There is a dangerous remove and superficiality to so many of our discussions, so much so that the deepest, core issue seems to have been lost on many," Zeid said.

"And as the attack on the multilateral system and its rules, including most especially international human rights law, intensifies, so too will the risk increase of further mischief on a grander scale," he said. "The U.N.’s collective voice must, therefore, be principled and strong; not weak and whining, obsessed with endless wrangling over process, the small things, as it is the case today."

An Israeli-led human rights body

At its opening, the Human Rights Committee for the first time unanimously chose an Israeli expert as its chair: Yuval Shany, deputy president of the Israel Democracy Institute and member of Hebrew University’s law faculty. It also selected a vice-chair, Mauro Politi, professor of public international law at the University of Trento and former judge on the International Criminal Court from 2003 to 2009.

Shany's leadership contrasts with the allegations of anti-Israeli bias on on the U.N. Human Rights Council, also based in Geneva. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration decided to pull the United States out of the 47-nation council, citing such a bias. In July, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly elected Iceland to fill the U.S. vacancy on the council.

Some critics called Shany's election outrageous given the Israeli settlements on territories sought by Palestinians for a homeland and alleged Israeli crimes during the 2014 Gaza conflict. In May, Palestinians asked the International Criminal Court — created to prosecute the world’s worst crimes — for a full investigation into Israeli settlement policies and actions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of Geneva-based U.N. Watch, a watchdog group often critical of the council, congratulated Shany on heading a committee that "unlike the 47-nation council, is a professional and non-political treaty-monitoring body, where we once won justice for Qaddafi victims."

He was referring to the committee's 2012 decision that Libya must be held accountable and provide compensation for the torture and illegal detention of a Palestinian doctor with Bulgarian nationality and five Bulgarian nurses during the Benghazi HIV-trial from 1999 to 2007 under Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

Six foreign medical workers finally went free after being tried for conspiring to deliberately infect more 400 children with HIV in 1998, including more than 50 that died in 2007.

Days after his selection, Shany told The Algemeiner Journal, a Jewish publication in Brooklyn, New York, that the Human Rights Committee does important work.

“It’s a huge challenge logistically and substantively, and it’s a great responsibility — there are a lot of people around the world who are depending on us," he said in the interview, adding that his goal was “to get the committee to work as effectively as possible, so that we can provide as much justice as we can.”