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The Sum of Its Parts
The U.N. cannot lead on human rights--it's full of human-rights abusers.


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Brett D. Schaefer

The United Nations has an admirable history of promoting the concept of basic human rights. Member states pledge in the charter “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” U.N. treaties, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights passed by the general assembly in 1948, form the core of international standards for human rights. Despite this history and the fact that each U.N. member state is party to at least one of the seven major human-rights treaties, the U.N. in recent decades has failed miserably to promote basic human rights in practice.

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Perhaps no institution illustrates this more than the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. As the premier human-rights body in the U.N. system, the commission “holds public meetings to review the human rights performance of States, to adopt new standards and to promote human rights around the world.” Sadly, the commission has devolved into a feckless organization that human-rights abusers use to block criticism or action promoting human rights. Six of the fifty-three members of the commission in 2005 were considered among the world’s “worst of the worst” abusers of human rights by Freedom House. China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe were members of the Commission in 2005. Libya chaired the commission in 2003. Even Secretary General Kofi Annan has acknowledged, “We have reached a point at which the commission’s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system.”

Leaving aside the question of just how sullied the U.N. reputation is in the wake of Oil for Food, peacekeeping abuses in the Congo, and the recent procurement scandals, there is no dispute that the Commission needs to be replaced.

Last fall, the U.N. General Assembly agreed to create a Human Rights Council to replace the commission. The U.S. and other countries have sought to make this council a smaller, more effective advocate for human rights, with standards for membership to make it more difficult for human-rights abusers to serve. They have been strongly opposed by countries seeking to minimize the effectiveness of the new council.

While it is too early to predict with confidence the outcome of negotiations, it seems likely that the resulting council will fall far short of the reformed, effective body sought by the U.S. This is hardly surprising. After all, every nation claims membership in the U.N., regardless of its dedication to upholding basic human-rights and freedoms. According to Freedom House, less than half of the U.N. membership is politically free. According to the Index of Economic Freedom, co-published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, less than half of the U.N. membership if economically free or mostly free. The U.N. reflects the lack of freedom among its membership.

The unfortunate reality is that the 191 member General Assembly–strongly influenced by China, Cuba, Libya, Zimbabwe, and other nations opposed to an effective human rights body–will not create an independent Human Rights Council capable of taking strong actions on human-rights abusers. It is unrealistic to expect the U.N. to lead the effort to confront human-rights abusers among its membership.

When asked about the negotiations over the Human Rights Council, U.S Ambassador John Bolton declared, “We want a butterfly. We’re not going to put lipstick on a caterpillar and declare it a success.” Such a position indicates a willingness to walk away from the Council if the chrysalis does not yield a butterfly. The question is, what is there to walk toward? Another round of fruitless negotiations in the U.N.? Indisputably, the effort to strengthen basic human rights and representative government could be greatly bolstered by an effective human rights body in the U.N. Sadly, such a body does not exist today, and news reports on the Human Rights Council negotiations indicate that such a body is unlikely to be created soon.

As Benjamin Franklin noted, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It is time to reject the U.N.-centric international human-rights system. Why must a U.N. beset by human-rights abusers be the central focus of efforts to promote human rights? It does not have to be so.

Governments, non-governmental organizations, and others seeking to strengthen observance of basic human rights should not let affection for the U.N. blind them to its inability to hold abusers to account. As noted by the bipartisan U.N. Task Force, “[U]ntil the United Nations holds its members accountable for their failure to observe well-established human rights norms, the United Nations is not the best forum for the proposed Human Rights Council.” Instead, advocates should seek to establish a human rights body that is independent from the U.N. and open only to democracies that respect political and economic freedom. Because representative governments already practice political freedom and basic human rights, they are most likely to promote those standards.

Human-rights advocates should not shy away from uncomfortable truths. Perhaps the U.N. will one day be dominated by democratic states that respect the freedoms of their citizens and demand similar standards from all U.N. member states. But that is not the U.N. of today. The likely failure of the U.S. and other nations to create a smaller, more effective Human Rights Council that excludes human-rights abusers and non-democracies from membership should be a clear sign that the U.N. cannot serve as the focal point for human-rights abuses. If the U.N. cannot serve as the primary vehicle in pursuit of that goal, the U.S. and like minded countries should pursue alternatives.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation and served as an expert on the Task Force on the United Nations.



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