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Relativism and Rights
Utopian illusions are preventing practical reforms of the Human Rights Commission.


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Earlier this month the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations, chafing over a U.S. plan to salvage the discredited Human Rights Commission, exemplified why the very idea of U.N. reform looks more and more like a gothic fantasy. The ambassador was indignant at the notion that states under U.N. sanction for rights abuses should be kept off a newly created Human Rights Council. “The presumption that a country is a violator of human rights is very subjective,” complained Munir Akram. “If you want to create criteria…that exclude certain countries, why not those that don’t support trade liberalization or that don’t implement foreign aid targets? The knife cuts both ways.”

Apologists for repressive governments, of course, love to talk this way: Farm subsidies are the moral equivalent of women being brutalized by militias in Congo or sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia. Or, in the case of Pakistan, of religious minorities being jailed and assaulted for allegedly violating blasphemy laws. In other words, no nation’s political culture is better or worse than any other’s.

It is not just problematic regimes that debase the concept of human rights with this kind of evasion. This is the logic of multiculturalism, an ethos that infects the United Nations from top to bottom. Echoed endlessly in U.N. reports and resolutions, this ethos has helped create a deep-seated cynicism about the nature of human rights. More than any other factor, it threatens to derail the current effort to reform the Human Rights Commission before its March meeting in Geneva.

Indeed, the ethic of multiculturalism has finally shredded the legitimacy of the U.N.’s premier human rights organization. Even the Office of the Secretary-General has awakened to the problem. Last year Kofi Annan complained that the Commission has “cast a shadow on the reputation on the U.N. system as a whole.” Mark Malloch Brown, his chief of staff, now calls the performance of the organization “the litmus test of U.N. renewal.”

They only hint at the enormity of the crisis. It’s bad enough that repressive states make up about a fourth of the 53 nations with a seat on the Human Rights Commission–states such as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The same states use their position to mute criticism of their thuggish treatment of journalists, political opponents, women, and religious minorities. Worse still, with a wink and a nod they manipulate the U.N. system to block meaningful action against the world’s most despotic regimes.

The Bush Administration has suggested that it will not return to a human rights body that changes in name only. “We’re finished with the Human Rights Commission in Geneva,” vowed Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, at a briefing last fall. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that a new Human Rights Council “should never–never–empower brutal dictatorships to sit in judgment of responsible democracies.”

It’s unclear, though, whether any initiative could overcome the institutional inertia to reform. The White House is pushing a package of measures to improve the composition–and the deliberations–of the proposed Council. Members would focus on “gross and systematic” violations of human rights; be elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly; be required to get letters of endorsement from at least half of the candidate’s regional group; and be excluded from membership if they faced U.N. resolutions for terrorism or human rights violations. Taken together, it’s a modest but sensible proposal.

Nevertheless, some U.N. watchers rightly worry that a General Assembly vote would still allow dictatorships onto the Human Rights Council, while keeping the United States off the body. (The Islamic Conference, for example, is composed of 56 nations, enough to block U.S. admission.) John Bolton, American Ambassador to the United Nations, angered some human-rights activists recently when he suggested that the permanent five members of the Security Council be guaranteed a slot. That would fulfill a White House goal of keeping the United States engaged in the process. But the inclusion of Russia and China is a bridge too far: It almost certainly would quash the larger objective of having stable democracies dominate the U.N.’s human rights machinery.

Perhaps it’s time for a thought experiment: Would any or all of these reforms produce a human rights organization that actually prodded the United Nations to confront a human rights catastrophe–the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan, for example?

Consider the African Union, the organization formed to promote democracy on the continent and which regularly sends member states to the Human Rights Commission. AU troops have provided a measure of security in war-torn Darfur. But, until recently, its commitment to African solidarity made it unwilling even to criticize the Sudanese government publicly. Over the objections of human rights groups, the AU held its annual summit in Khartoum last week–and debated whether or not to turn over leadership of the organization to Sudan.

Likewise, the Arab League, which also has members on the Commission, has opposed tough measures against the government of Sudan out of sympathy with the Islamic dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Meanwhile, a Security Council resolution to implement sanctions against Sudan has gone nowhere, thanks in part to China, whose largest oil company, PetroChina, is heavily invested in the country. China, of course, is a regular presence in Geneva. Any human rights organization embedded in the U.N. system would face this culture of real politik.

A U.N. working-group on the Human Rights Council is negotiating the future of the organization, but–based on the debate so far–it likely would include governments with strong political, financial, or sectarian motives to preserve the status quo. Even the U.N. Democracy Caucus (UNDC), created to promote democracy and human rights, is having trouble shaking free of this dynamic. A study released last year by the Democracy Coalition Project showed a “persistent propensity” among democratic states to cling to regional alliances and avoid confronting human-rights abusers. Says executive director Ted Piccone, “There is little consensus among UNDC members to condemn even some of the worst violators of human rights.”

U.N. defenders shrug all this off by claiming that the United Nations is only as good as its member states. That’s a half-truth: By giving dictatorships equal voting power with democracies, the system almost guarantees that no meaningful agreement can be reached as to what counts as a violation of human rights. John Prendergast, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, emphasizes the political will of the Security Council: “All the reports and speeches of these U.N. bodies count for nothing,” he says, “if the Security Council is not prepared to fulfill its responsibilities.” True enough. Yet it’s hard to conceive of non-democratic states–and there are plenty of them on the Security Council–eager to fulfill their human-rights obligations, especially when there are no serious consequences for failing to do so.

Shouldn’t the task of defending fundamental human rights be limited to democratic states with a measurable record of success? And if such an alliance can’t function effectively within the United Nations, isn’t it time to consider operating outside of it?

A growing number of scholars, it seems, believes it is. Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations have called for the creation of a new coalition of democracies “to confront common security challenges.” Ruth Wedgewood, professor of international law and organizations at Johns Hopkins University, argues for a U.S. policy of “competitive multilateralism”–that is, creating informal coalitions outside of the United Nations to tackle issues of mutual concern. “There still seems to be no momentum for change at the United Nations,” she writes. “If things can’t be changed from within, members may need to vote with their feet, one issue at a time.” Joshua Muravchik, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is equally blunt. “The effort to be a proto-world government is the crux of the U.N.’s worst failings,” he writes in The Future of the United Nations. Rather, he argues, a group of democracies could form a committee on human rights to “forthrightly condemn and publicize egregious abuses.”

U.N. officials bristle at these suggestions, but their failure to speak and act unambiguously to defend human dignity has invited them. Kofi Annan’s 2004 High-Level Panel Report on U.N. Reform, for example, argued that no country–for any reason–should be denied membership on the Human Rights Commission. In the same breath, the panel insisted that “the United Nations was never intended to be a utopian exercise.” Yet, with regard to its core mandate of human rights protection, that’s exactly what much of the organization has become. Even at this late hour, U.N. negotiators can’t seem to agree on any criteria for membership; some even want to do away with resolutions that name and shame offending nations.

It’s a far cry from the organization that gave the world a universal declaration of human rights. Having begun by asserting the inviolability of fundamental rights, the Commission now deliberates as if such rights are endlessly negotiable. Having once held as absolutely binding the claims of a universal moral code, the same body treats these claims as mere preferences–and easily disposable preferences at that. Charles Malik, the Lebanese diplomat who succeeded Eleanor Roosevelt as president of the Human Rights Commission, warned against this trend. “Either there is a common morality about man that can be codified and not only respected but also actually observed under a rule of law,” he said, “or we are on the verge of chaos.”

The moral chaos of the Commission ranks as one of the worst scandals in a scandal-ridden United Nations. Thus the spectacle before us: The U.N.’s politicization of human rights is diverting attention from atrocities occurring under our noses. Its obsession with multiculturalism drains enormous energy into fights over frivolous resolutions. Its refusal to judge between democracies and dictatorships empowers demagogues to repress and murder their own citizens. The U.N.’s quixotic vision of a “parliament of humanity” blithely ignores the tragic realities of human nature.

This is the problem with utopians: They pretend that the world is as they wish it were, not as it actually is. A dose of moral realism–informed by conscience, common sense, and religious conviction–seems to be in order. Politically speaking, that means allowing for the possibility of unilateral action by the United States or joint action by a democratic coalition of the willing.

At least on the issue of human rights, moral realism now means a willingness to work largely outside the U.N. system. Too many political leaders are too trusting in paper promises, too enamored with soft talk and sweet reason. They don’t spend enough time actually hearing from the victims of tyranny and terror. Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, warning about the brutalities of Nazi Germany, fiercely criticized the impulse to ignore or appease aggressors. “When the mind is not confused by utopian illusions,” he wrote in 1941, “it is not difficult to recognize genuine achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice.”

At this hour of judgment for the United Nations, Niebuhr’s insight seems especially poignant. A sense of our moral obligations to others depends on minds that are clear. The sooner the fog of illusions is lifted, the better.

Joseph Loconte, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion at the Heritage Foundation, is a commentator for National Public Radio and editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm. He served as a human rights expert on the 2005 Congressional Task Force on U.N.



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