Politics & Policy

Endangered Sovereignty

U.N. bureaucrats are making a quiet power grab.

In less than a month’s time–the 16th and 17th of September–the world’s great and good will be gathering at the U.N. building in Manhattan for what is officially called the High Level Plenary Meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. This meeting, attended by the heads of government of most countries, including the major powers, has become a regular event in recent years, but one of ceremonial importance rather than of substance.

This year, however, the meeting will be very significant indeed. For the plenary session will almost certainly pass an obscure document, now circulating in draft form among U.N. delegations, that calls on the assembled governments to re-affirm their support for the U.N.’s Millennium Declaration Goals and the other declarations of U.N. conferences over the past 30 years. It will ask them to support the achievement of these goals in a coordinated and integrated manner, to renew their commitment to…

Falling asleep already, are you? Well, that is precisely the intention of those who composed these anodyne phrases. When bureaucrats seize power, they do it not with swords but with chloroform. And this document is a power-grab by people of whom you have never heard, the officials of the U.N. Secretariat, working in tandem with the diplomats of those countries and international organizations that would like to expand the power of the U.N. and its various agencies over both the citizens and governments of member nations.

You might suppose that, given the spreading scandal of the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program, in which a regiment of U.N. officials was corruptly assisting Saddam Hussein to outwit the very sanctions they were supposed to be enforcing, the U.N. Secretariat would be on the defensive. And tucked away towards the end of this document, there are provisions to increase the transparency and accountability of U.N. agencies and their officials. In a rational world they would be whole of the document.

Alas, a reader who has the fortitude and diligence to plough through all of its 158 provisions will discover that its main thrust is to extend the U.N.’s power directly into countries and over the lives of citizens, corporations and private bodies. That ambition is not, of course, advertised. Most of the language used, in addition to being sleep-inducing, is mildly benevolent in tone. For instance:

“We recognize that development, peace and security and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing and cannot be enjoyed without each other.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s not true. China today is enjoying economic development of almost unprecedented rapidity under a government that has only a limited regard for such human rights as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. Always beware when politicians throw platitudes at you.

More dangerous than platitudes, however, are commitments. This is because the governments signing onto them often have only the vaguest notion of what they imply. Now there are 158 provisions in this document, some of which contain ten or twelve commitments. So the four commitments that follow offer merely a taste of a truly gargantuan meal. Still, here goes:

The section on the environment commits governments to promoting something called “sustainable consumption.” Consumption is your standard of living. If that commitment is not mere flapdoodle, it means that a government that endorses it will limit its citizens’ standard of living in line with the U.N.’s view of its environmental sustainability. And we all know from other pronouncements that the U.N. and its agencies consider U.S. consumption to be unsustainable.

The same section commits governments to undertake “concerted global action” to meet their commitments and obligations under the Kyoto protocol. Well, the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 against Kyoto some years ago–and earlier this year it rejected Senator John McCain’s legislation that would have introduced Kyoto-style targets and penalties. So which body and set of rules are to govern Americans–the U.S. Congress and the laws it passes? Or the U.N. and its conference declarations?

The section on human rights calls for “equal participation and representation of men and women in government decision-making bodies.” Again, a very nice sentiment, but one with a problem. To implement it as the U.N. expects, governments would have to nominate members of congress. In democracies, however, it is voters rather than governments who choose their representatives–and they are statistically unlikely to choose a cross section of the population. The only way to obtain “gender equality” in parliamentary bodies is to abolish democracy.

And at different points the U.N. document calls on governments to accept and implement treaties such as the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty and that establishing the International Criminal Court that the U.S. government–both Congress and the administration–has rejected.

But how important is all this? What harm is there in signing onto to these desirable outcomes even if we believe that they are either unobtainable or very distant? As scholars like John Fonte of the Hudson Institute have shown, there is very considerable potential harm. These treaties and declarations include enforcement mechanisms such as “monitoring” bodies. Sovereign democratic nations such as Canada have had to host delegations from the U.N. investigating whether their budgetary cuts in welfare violate some commitment they made on welfare rights.

Worse, these commitments change when judges interpret the treaties in a way no one would have predicted when they were signed. A topical example: the British government is currently trying to deport terrorist suspects it considers a danger to the public, but the courts maintain that such deportations are contrary to Britain’s signature on the European Declaration of Human Rights.

In other words, the most sensitive and vital political questions are removed from democratic parliaments and the voters and handed over to an international committee nominated by foreign and often despotic regimes.

Yet the U.S. government is coming under enormous pressure to endorse this catalogue of potential interventions as a result of pressure not from despots but from its closest democratic friends. The European Union is strongly in favor of transferring power from nation states to transnational bodies because it is itself a trans-national body–and sees itself as the harbinger of a new sort of trans-national political order superior to sovereign nation states. And the current presidency of the E.U. is held by Tony Blair, the president’s best friend, who is himself an extreme devotee of “muscular multilateralism.”

Blair’s pressure is likely to be augmented, moreover, by “realists” in the Bush administration who will argue that opposing the U.N. document is pointless. It will annoy our allies, alienate the international community, and divide America–all to stop a document that is best meaningless and at worst utopian.

Such diplomatic trade-offs must sometimes be made. Unfortunately, they never stop with the first one. Some years in the future, when a U.N. committee wants to hold us to our word, or a U.S. court cites the U.N. declaration to overturn domestic law, the same “realists” will argue that fighting this interference is not worth alienating our allies, losing a U.N. vote, or sacrificing some other matter the State Department then thinks vital.

The time to halt this diplomatic rake’s progress is now–and to do so on the principle that Americans are a self-governing people. If Tony Blair is prepared to surrender Britain’s democratic sovereignty to either a European government or a U.N. committee, that is a matter for him and the British people. American democracy needs no external examiners.

John O’Sullivan is editor at large of National Review..

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