We’d call the words “United Nations Commission on Human Rights” an oxymoron, but that would be too kind. It would suggest that there was some necessary contradiction between the U.N. and the promotion of human rights–and accordingly excuse the fact that the UNCHR has chosen to give diplomatic cover to some of the planet’s worst tyrants. In so doing, it has been actively destructive to the interests of human rights. Even Kofi Annan, who has devoted the twilight of his career to seeing no evil unless it bears the name “Bush,” has called for the UNCHR’s reform.
Diplomats in New York are now in frenzied negotiations to answer that call. A draft resolution for the creation of a new U.N. human-rights council was circulated on Feb. 6, and there is a push underway to reach agreement by Wednesday, in time for the new body to replace the existing UNCHR before its next session begins. We wonder why they bother. The successor is worthy of the original–just as bad, and utterly undeserving of respect from anyone concerned about human rights. It’s time for those who feel such concern, led by the U.S., to work together outside the U.N. system.
Without meaningful eligibility requirements, any “reform” of the UNCHR is unworthy of the name. The UNCHR’s basic problem–which is, come to think of it, also the basic problem of the U.N.–is that it puts liberal democracies side by side with genocidal despotisms as though they were equally legitimate. That’s how it happened that six of the 53 current UNCHR members–China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe–are on Freedom House’s list of the worst human-rights abusers. That’s also why the UNCHR has barred Israel from its meetings over invented human-rights abuses while failing to rouse itself to action against real ones (to take one example, it has never passed a resolution against the Chinese government). The proposed human-rights council would do nothing to solve this problem. Even a laughably weak eligibility criterion–that any country under U.N. sanction for human-rights violations be barred from membership–self-destructed during the negotiations.
Other components of the resolution are disappointing as well. It would increase the geographic representation of non-Western states–which also tend to be non-democratic ones. It would only reduce the number of members from 53 to 45, a blow to those who had hoped a much smaller body could prevent coalitions of dictators from wielding disproportionate influence. It mandates that members sit on the council for only two years–an arbitrary cut-off that will keep protectors of human rights from serving any longer than the likes of Cuba or Sudan. It speaks of a right to “development” under the council’s authority–which, in practice, means the right of an Irish rock star to browbeat developed countries into subsidizing third-world kleptocracies. The verdict is still out on whether members will have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the U.N. General Assembly; but, if so, the required geographic distribution of members, along with the absence of any requirement that regional blocs field more candidates than the number of seats available to them, will make it tough to bar unsavory states from sitting on the council.
So, what to do? The temptation for the U.S. to walk away from such a farce will be strong. But that would come at the price of diminishing any influence we might have over the new body. While it would be foolish to expect the council to do much good, we still have a stake in blocking it from taking actions and codifying new rights fundamentally opposed to our interests. No one would be happier to see us go than nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that have made America-bashing their raison d’être. Their strategy, when they can’t persuade the American electorate to do what they want on issues like gun control, the death penalty, “eavesdropping,” or the environment, is to internationalize these issues and use bodies like the UNCHR against us.
“The United States should lead
efforts to found a new institution
devoted to the protection
of human rights.”
Regardless of whether we participate in the new council, it’s time to create an alternative. The United States should lead efforts to found a new institution devoted to the protection of human rights, and involving eligibility requirements that would limit member states to genuine liberal democracies. Many multilateral organizations exist outside the U.N. structure–NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe come to mind–and they are effective precisely because, unlike the three rings at Turtle Bay, their member states are committed to common values. President Bush has already set a precedent for circumventing failed international bureaucracies: Faced with the ineffectiveness of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he created the Proliferation Security Initiative, which has been instrumental in, among other things, inducing Libya to give up its nuclear-weapons program.
A new human-rights organization, untainted by the United Nations, might eventually spur U.N. reform. Alternatively, it might marginalize the proposed U.N. human-rights council and light its way to dusty death. In either case, it would do a far better job of defending the world’s defenseless than the club of tyrants we have now.