Opinion: UN Calling – Where is Poland?

When Poland joined the UN in 1945, some saw it as the first step towards the country regaining its former influence on the world stage. Of course, that was before the realities of communism locked the country behind an Iron Curtain and put aside any hopes of it participating as a fully-fledged member.

But it has been nearly 20 years since Poland regained its chance. And just as recently as last month, there was even hope (albeit a somewhat naive hope) that NATO might be led by a Pole. And yet, when on Tuesday the United Nations General Assembly gathered in New York City to elect a host of new members to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Poland was nowhere on the ballot.

Eighteen of the 47 seats were up for grabs, but only 20 countries contested. That means that countries such as Cuba and China, which are to this day cited for rights abuses, have been re-elected as members of the council.

Representing Eastern Europe were Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine. Pre-election, only two out of six were EU members. With Hungary taking Azerbaijan’s seat in this election, the percentage is now half and half – still a pretty pitiful figure.

In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times on Sunday, former Czech President Vaclav Havel berated his own country’s lack of participation:

“In the Eastern Europe region — which under the United Nations’ rules includes all countries behind the former Iron Curtain, including my own, the Czech Republic — the countries running for re-election are Azerbaijan and Russia, whose human rights records oscillate from questionable to despicable. Only Hungary has stepped forward to compete for the region’s two seats. The reluctance of Eastern European states to reclaim leadership from human rights abusers does not inspire confidence.”

Not only does it not inspire confidence, it reveals an inherent apathy when it comes to participating as a true world player. Sure, when controversial and glamorous topics such as the missile shield or the Lisbon Treaty are concerned, Poland is not afraid to make its voice heard. But propose a long, often tedious process such as the struggle for universal human rights, which largely takes place outside of the glare of the daily headlines, and the Polish leadership shies away.

Though perhaps as much to blame is the Polish public. There has been no serious outcry against the UNHRC elections, no protests on the streets. To date, no major Polish dailies have questioned Poland’s lack of participation. And when it comes to participating in politics that reach beyond the Polish border, interest remains disturbingly low – as next month’s European Parliament elections will likely confirm.

Perhaps the worst news for Poland and other non-participating EE countries is that they won’t get a chance to correct their mistakes for another three years. Let’s hope that by 2012, Poland is truly ready to enter the global stage.

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