Thousands of people flock to the annual six-week session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In 2002, there were 3,700 participants–2,100 of whom were members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Their sheer numbers invest the commission with an air of legitimacy and an aura of power. But “civil society,” as they are all presumptuously called, doesn’t speak with one voice.

Outside the elaborate Palais des Nations, demonstrations occur daily, contained in fixed places as far away as possible from the action. On the way to the meetings, the banners read such things as “Free Tibet.”

Other members of civil society make it into the Palais itself. A set of formalities and a badge get you in the door. Tables and bulletin boards outside the meeting room have hundreds of pamphlets and notices. This year they include: “Zimbabwe: Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders at a Crossroads,” and “Chechnya: A War Against Civilian Populations.” The subject matter is considerably more varied than the content of the diplomats’ speeches inside.

There are free books on issues such as “Claiming Our Rights: Surviving Pregnancy and Childbirth in Mali.” A well-organized coalition, such as the Child Rights Caucus, has a schedule of briefings and panels arranged every day for five weeks. Then there are the individual pleas, like that of Abdel Malek, reported as being in arbitrary detention in Egypt since September 1997.

Even an NGO newspaper is put out by the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center during the commission, with headlines such as “Country resolutions: Will CHR [the Commission] become a chamber of impunity?”

In addition to the frenzied activity outside the meeting, and another step up the civil-society totem pole, are the NGOs on the inside–NGOs accredited to the Economic and Social Council of the UN. These “ECOSOC accredited” NGOs may speak in the commission itself, 3-1/2 minutes on an agenda item, and have 2,000 of their words published as official UN documents. This week, 75 NGOs spoke on the agenda item concerning human rights abuses in specific countries the world over.

The orchestrated encounter between the state-run human rights operation and good-willed, earnest folks who care about human rights, however, is not quite what meets the eye.

While most appreciate that even the monitors of the masses, like police, accountants and lawyers, need to be monitored themselves, NGOs are the last bastion of self-appointed, untouchable authorities on human rights.

When the Amnesty International representative told a large gathering during a lunchtime recess: “to my knowledge, there has never been a Palestinian minor involved in a suicide bombing,” she impressed a lot of listeners. This was notwithstanding the fact that there have been at least five well-documented cases of 16- and 17-year-old Palestinian suicide bombers in the last two years, and at least another five juveniles caught with suicidal explosives.

Before the war with Iraq even began, Human Rights Watch was anticipating human rights violations by American soldiers, and soliciting information from legal experts in order to “monitor the actions of occupying forces to ensure they… respect the rights of Iraqis.” No talk of liberation here.

The International Human Rights Law Group based in Washington is a key player in seeking to promote the Durban Racism Conference and its outcome, at the UN Commission and elsewhere. Its executive director’s response to California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos’ description of the anti-Semitism of the conference and its aftermath: “Jewish groups… cannot let their own agendas undermine the advances gained by so many other groups.”

So who are these self-appointed moral guardians?

The UN has rules for granting ECOSOC accreditation to NGOs. One small problem: The UN committee applying the rules includes such states as China, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan. Mysteriously, the committee turned down “Human Rights in China,” and has had lengthy battles over applications from groups such as “Freedom House” and “Hadassa.”

This might also explain the recent commission speech of accredited NGO “The International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD),” railing about “the anthrax letters that were mailed in the United States by a well-known American Zionist.” EAFORD, with UN status since 1981, was established in Libya with the stated goal of promoting the idea that Zionism equals racism.

Human rights organizations, truly independent of governments, play a vital role in the protection of human rights. But figuring out who is independent, accurate and impartial is another question, generally left unasked and unanswered.

This piece ran on April 6th, 2003 in the Chicago Sun Times