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A Dictator’s Dream
The U.N. Human Rights Commission has little to do with advancing human rights.


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Anne Bayefsky

Watching the U.N. Human Rights Commission, whose annual session ended on Friday, helps clarify the appeal of the United Nations.

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Over six weeks, 3,500 participants assembled, including 1,500 government representatives and 1,700 members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They clocked over 50 half-day meetings and another 600 meetings of “parallel activities.” The session produced approximately 700 documents, numbering over 10,000 pages.

Every year a cameraman takes pictures of the delegates in their seats, careful to include the signature U.N. nameplates and translation devices, and sells the photos in the hall. The NGOs get three minutes for a statement, and often prepare for their appointed time slot months in advance. The feeling is of history in the making, the pulse of international political life a heartbeat away, the sleepless nights in negotiations and discussions–a small price to pay for a drop of immortality. And all this in the name of the ultimate value: human rights. What the U.N. really does well is atmospherics.

But one feature of the atmosphere should be noteworthy to the American taxpayer, who is footing 22 percent of the bill. It is the common belief of all and sundry that the world’s biggest problem is the United States. As one delegate stated so succinctly, at the U.N. the United States is radioactive. The statements of U.S. representatives and their calls for a vote are met with groans, and the outcomes are often met with laughter. Almost one-third of the votes cast this year found the U.S. voting alone or with a single other state.

A radioactive United States in the framework of U.N.-led multilateralism translates into the European Union’s taking the lead on just about every issue of interest to Western governments. Commission members are divided into the U.N.’s five regional groups: the Western European and Others Group (including the U.S.), with ten members; Eastern European with five; Latin American and Caribbean, with eleven; African, 15; and Asian, 12. The numbers tell the story–while American support is unnecessary or unhelpful, EU support for Western concerns is essential. If the EU won’t push for a strong resolution on atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, or any resolution at all on Iran, Zimbabwe, or Chechnya, it’s a no-go. So at this year’s commission there were four resolutions condemning Israel alone, and only four resolutions that were tough on four of the remaining 190 U.N. members. Another twelve countries were the subject of toned-down demonstrations of concern.

Taking a closer look inside the EU, we see that vote outcomes often resolve around a minimum common denominator, such as Ireland. Recall the 2001 U.N. World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, which provided a global platform for anti-Semitism. In October 2004 another report was produced by an intergovernmental working group on follow-up to the Durban conference. But still unsatisfied, African and Asian states moved a resolution at the Commission containing a number of items they couldn’t get past the working group, including a provision pressing for a five-year review of the Durban conference. In came the Europeans, huffing and puffing about broken promises and ill-manners, which they followed with an abstention. Why didn’t the Europeans use the leverage of a threat to vote against (and an actual “no” vote), I asked one senior European diplomat? His answer: The Irish wanted to vote for.

At the same time, both Europeans and Americans find a fair number of commission-inspired initiatives unpalatable. Resolutions and decisions adopted this year over their combined opposition included “Human rights and unilateral coercive measures”–a resolution of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (which comprises 60 percent of U.N. members) that objected to sanctions for violating human rights. There was also “Human rights and human responsibilities”–a decision sponsored by the so-called “Like-Minded Group,” a subset of commission members led by China, which requested the production of a draft declaration on “human social responsibilities” by a Cuban “independent expert.”

The composition of the U.N. Commission makes such results possible. Its members include some of the countries with the poorest human-rights records in the world: Bhutan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, and Zimbabwe. 58 percent of Commission members are less than fully democratic, according to Freedom House.

It was therefore predictable that this year would look a great deal like years past. A resolution called for another report on discrimination against Muslims and Arab peoples. A resolution containing a minor reference to anti-Semitism, and no call for a report on this subject, was met by the Pakistani ambassador’s pronouncement–on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (comprising 30 percent of U.N. members)–that anti-Semitism was not about Jews. No resolution was attempted on behalf of 1.3 billion Chinese who are deprived of basic civil and political rights, despite the fact that Commission members had before them a detailed report concluding that “the rules and practice concerning judicial deprivation of liberty are not in keeping with international law and standards.” After the 2002 defeat of a draft resolution on Iran, nothing has been attempted to condemn the appalling human-rights record of a state sponsor of terrorism hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

Overall, the ledger shows that the U.S. was in the minority 80 percent of the time. EU states were in the minority just 35 percent of the time.

Some of the difference between the U.S. and EU alignments was due to U.S. positions on the International Criminal Court (ICC). Now that the U.S. has agreed to send the case of Sudan to the ICC, its policy on the subject is incoherent and the commission was the first test of the State Department’s ability to pretend otherwise. Nobody was impressed by the U.S. practice of joining consensus on resolutions making a number of references to the ICC and then making “Explanations of Vote” strenuously objecting to the court’s statute.

The State Department’s recent report to Congress comparing U.S. foreign-policy positions to 2004 outcomes at the U.N. was at pains to point to consensus results as demonstrative of a high degree of “coincidence.” But consensus at the U.N. masks serious disagreements. The consensus resolution called “Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” encourages the notion that fighting terrorism and protecting human rights are on opposite sides, despite lip service paid to the contrary. It calls for detailed examination only of violations of human rights caused by counter-terrorism activities and not by the terrorism itself.

Consensus was also reached on Sudan. The resolution which the United States and the European Union took off the table in the face of African and Asian opposition said that the Commission “Condemns . . . attacks[,] . . . many of them under the direct responsibility of, or tolerated by, the Government of Sudan.” What was adopted instead “condemns: the . . . violations of human rights[;] the violence against civilians and sexual violence against women and urges all parties to take the necessary steps to prevent further violations; the prevailing situation in Darfur . . . including attacks against civilians committed by all parties[.]” Though the U.S. ambassador felt compelled to claim victory by describing the resolution as providing “a strong mechanism for investigating ongoing human rights abuses and bringing about their end,” the commission actually wants another report six months from now, and assistance to the African Union whenever they get serious.

The dynamic reveals a great deal about the underlying U.N. pathology. With no democratic pre-conditions for membership, the commission, like the general assembly, is a forum through which non-democracies can trump democracies. Furthermore, situating democracies in an organization where relationships with non-democracies provide leverage over other democracies divides democratic states rather than bringing them together. Though the EU relishes the role of middleman between the state sponsors of terrorism or genocide and the United States, the halfway point is not where the U.S., or its fellow democracies, ought to be.

In March, Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed saving the credibility of the U.N.’s primary human-rights body by scrapping it and creating a human-rights council. It would be elected by a two-thirds majority of U.N. members, and “those elected to the Council should undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards.” This suggestion ignores the fact that states will not relinquish geographic distribution on such a U.N. body, and the vote trading and slates of regional groups means the likes of China will simply reappear. There are no democratic and rights-respecting criteria for membership. And the inevitable relationship of the council to the General Assembly–with its full panoply of despotic regimes in the front row–spells an absence of real change.

It is time to recognize the inherent limitations of the U.N. club, the majority of whose members are playing by rules incompatible with the American Constitution. Only then will the U.N.’s proper role become clear.

Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting professor at Touro and Metropolitan Colleges in New York..



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