Commentary Magazine


The UN on the Loose

This spring, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights held its 58th annual meeting, the month-long event at which it conducts all of its business. For the first time ever, the United States did not participate. The effects were evident.

Although fewer than one-third of the UN’s members sit on the human-rights commission at any one time, the U.S. had secured election to every session since the commission’s founding. Not only was the commission something of an American invention—Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the committee that conceived it—but the U.S., as the mightiest power of the postwar era, has put human rights at the forefront of its foreign policy. Other states have allowed the U.S. to stake its special claim to the commission precisely because they have not attached as much importance to the issue—and also because the commission is essentially toothless. With a warrant only to hear grievances and spotlight abuses, it can neither punish violators nor compensate victims.

This is not to say that the human-rights commission stands for nothing. In its combination of powerlessness and presumed moral authority, it is a perfect microcosm of the UN itself. It epitomizes the idea, central to the world organization’s premises, that the Hobbesian chaos of international relations can be superseded by a “community of nations,” governed by principle and sharing important common values. This year’s unprecedented session of the human-rights commission, without the U.S. in attendance to wield its traditional influence, did indeed reflect certain principles and values—though not, alas, the ones to be found in the lofty language of the UN charter.

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Members of the human-rights commission are elected by the UN Economic and Social Council. To be eligible, a country must first be nominated by its region. Ordinarily, this ensures that there is no competition in the final balloting, since each region is assigned a certain number of seats and usually nominates just enough countries to fill them.

In last year’s vote for the 2002 session, however, the “Western Europe and Others” group, to which the U.S. belongs, declined to play by the usual rules. France, Austria, and Sweden laid claim to the three seats to which the region was entitled. Since none of them would agree to defer to the U.S., the Economic and Social Council was left to choose from a slate of four. When the secret ballots were counted, the U.S., despite having received enough informal pledges of support to ensure election, was the odd man out.

Behind this rebuff lay a tacit alliance between America’s allies and its adversaries. For the Europeans who orchestrated the ouster of the U.S., the point was to teach a lesson to the Bush administration, which in the months before September 11 was already being subjected to a tide of trans-Atlantic complaints about American “unilateralism” in connection with its refusal to endorse efforts like the Kyoto Protocols and the International Criminal Court. But the Europeans were also able to count on the support of many of the world’s nastiest regimes. Cuba and China, frequent targets of American censure on the commission, lobbied especially hard to deprive the U.S. of its seat. In the wake of the vote, the Chinese ambassador told the Washington Post that “We prefer to have dialogue [on human rights]. The United States does not,” while nearby the French ambassador was telling the New York Times that “approaching human-rights issues with cooperation and dialogue rather than confrontation . . . worked well with China.”

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When the 2002 meeting finally took place in Geneva this past March and April, the absence of the U.S. was in some respects not especially noticeable. Of the 110 resolutions adopted by the commission, 80 percent were general declarations rather than statements about problems in particular countries, and most echoed familiar tropes in the famously overblown rhetoric of the UN.

The rights asserted in these general declarations ranged far and wide and took into account a potpourri of sufferers: from migrants, missing persons, juvenile offenders, conscientious objectors, and people with HIV/AIDS to more familiar victims, indigenous peoples, and the “African diaspora.” A number of resolutions addressed the rights of women, aiming to protect them from violence, slavery, and prostitution as well as to ensure a place for them in “the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building.” Poor countries also received lavish attention. Not only was the now canonical “right to development” affirmed, but so too was a newer litany including the right “to establish cultural industries that [are] viable and competitive at national and international levels”; the right to “sound management of unwanted stocks of hazardous wastes”; and, naturally, the right to debt relief and more foreign aid.

The U.S. has never stood in the way of such resolutions. Even had it wished to do so, it has held back, saving its political capital for bigger fights: namely, the singling out of individual offenders. And that is exactly where the 2002 session of the human-rights commission most clearly demonstrated what the world “community” would look like without American leadership—or American damage-control.

Governments that routinely violate human rights have learned that membership in the commission is a good way to insulate themselves from criticism. Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria—five of the ten countries rated the “worst of the worst” in Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties—now sit on the commission. China and Russia are also members, although they rule, respectively, Tibet and Chechnya, designated by Freedom House as the least free of the world’s various nonsovereign territories.

What happens when such foxes guard the hen house? Not a word was said by the commission about Libya, Syria, or Saudi Arabia—not even about then-treatment of women, which, needless to say, falls considerably short of the commission’s feminism-inspired standards. Nor was mention made of most of the countries scoring a “near-worst” on Freedom House’s scale, including Vietnam, Laos, Uzbekistan, Rwanda, Eritrea, and Bhutan.

China—the most prominent member of this second list—wields enough diplomatic clout, and deploys it with sufficient ferocity, that it is has never been criticized by the human-rights commission. Indeed, it has almost always succeeded in blocking critical resolutions even from being debated. What it has not managed to do is to keep them from being introduced in the first place—a duty invariably performed, in previous sessions, by the United States. This year, however, for the first time in memory, China did not need to use its blocking tactics. Nobody, including none of the European members of the commission, was willing to beard Beijing. (Nor was there a hint of “dialogue” on the subject.)

This is not to say that no rights-abusing nation suffered censure. Fourteen did—almost as many as in previous years—but the criticisms tended to be fairly tepid. The mildest of the resolutions “invited” the government of Cuba, whose “efforts to give effect to the social rights of the population despite an adverse international environment are to be recognized, to make efforts to achieve similar progress in respect of human, civil, and political rights.” Even this, introduced by several Latin American states, infuriated Fidel Castro, who in the absence of the U.S. had expected to get away with no mention at all.

Nor was the European Union completely mute about violators. It endorsed resolutions critical of abuses in Zimbabwe, Iraq, Iran, Myanmar, Sudan, Congo, and Chechnya. Three of these, however, failed to pass. Although President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe had orchestrated a wave of racist violence in his campaign to cling to power, the African bloc, taking a page from China’s book, pushed through a motion that prevented the Zimbabwe resolution from coming to the floor.

The Islamic states, for their part, joined together to defeat the motion on Iran, even though most observers agree that human-rights violations there have worsened in the last year. The decision was trumpeted on Teheran’s state-run television:

[T]he human-rights commission’s decision not to condemn Iran, which is unprecedented since eighteen years ago . . . was made at a time when America was not a member of the commission. This is a very important and decisive development because in America’s absence, members of the international community and official UN institutions are no longer influenced by America, and they can make fair decisions.

Unexpectedly, Russia also received help from the Islamic nations. Although Russia’s forces in Chechnya are estimated to have caused the deaths of some 60,000 Muslim civilians, the Islamic caucus abstained from and thereby scuttled a resolution of condemnation. The caucus needed Russia’s vote and influence, and had bigger fish to fry—namely, Israel and the American war on terrorism.

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A frequent refrain of the 2002 meeting was that since September 11, efforts to combat terrorism had been creating new threats to human rights. The theme was sounded first by Mary Robinson, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, who opened the session by deploring the “sharp rise in Islamophobia, anti-Arab and anti-Semitic expression.” Secretary General Kofi Annan chimed in, warning that to fight terrorism by sacrificing human rights “would hand the terrorists a victory beyond their dreams.” Accordingly, the commission adopted a resolution warning those states engaged in the “struggle against terrorism” not to discriminate “on grounds of race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin” and to “refrain from all forms of racial profiling.”

But this tea was too weak for the Islamic caucus, which pushed through another resolution sounding “alarm . . . at the impact of September 11 on Muslim minorities and communities.” Decrying a “campaign of defamation,” it complained that “Islam is frequently and wrongly associated with human-rights violations and with terrorism” and reminded one and all that “discrimination against human beings on grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity.” These high-minded sentiments were endorsed by, among others, Syria, whose president declared last May in the presence of the Pope that the Jews have tried “to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ,” and by Saudi Arabia, which forbids the open practice of any faith other than Islam and where an official of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs recently expressed his “surprise . . . that the Christian U.S. allows the ‘brothers of apes and pigs’ [Jews] to corrupt it.”

None of the resolution’s supporters explained why the commission should deplore attacks on Muslims in particular at a time when, in Europe, synagogues were being burned, Jewish cemeteries vandalized, and Jews assaulted on a daily basis—almost always by Muslim immigrants. Nor did they say why it was erroneous to associate Islam with terrorism and human-rights violations when about two-thirds of the terrorist groups named in the State Department’s annual report on the subject are Islamic and when the world’s predominantly Muslim states cluster together at the bottom of Freedom House’s survey of civil and political liberty.

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But the hypocrisy in the commission’s concerns about “defamation” of the Islamic world were as nothing compared to its treatment of Israel. While most states guilty of human-rights abuses went entirely unmentioned at the meeting, and the unlucky few who did not escape scrutiny were criticized in single statements, Israel was lambasted in eight separate resolutions, and in language far harsher than that applied to any other state.

The Islamic caucus and the remaining Communist states (China, Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea) instigated these attacks, but the lynch-mob spirit was very much encouraged by Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson. Referring to Israel’s then-ongoing military operation to root out the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank, Annan proclaimed that the UN could not “afford to be neutral in the face of great moral challenges,” adding that “the desperate situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories . . . has become an affront to the conscience of mankind.” Robinson trumpeted her readiness to lead a delegation to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes, and when Israel refused to give visas to her group, she issued her report anyway, condemning Palestinian suicide bombings in a brief aside before devoting thousands of words to castigating Israel.

As for the resolutions themselves, one condemned Israel for its occupation of the Golan Heights, another for its detention of Lebanese terrorists, a third for its settlements in the territories, and a fourth and fifth for its failure to cooperate with Mary Robinson’s investigation. Three more addressed general concerns about human rights in “occupied Palestine.” One of these, which passed by a vote of 52 to one—with only Guatemala, Israel’s sole defender on the commission, dissenting—asserted “the unqualified right of the Palestinian people to self-determination”; “unqualified” means regardless of their willingness to live in peace with Israel.

The coup de grace of the anti-Israel resolutions “affirmed the legitimate right of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation,” adding that “by so doing, the Palestinian people is fulfilling . . . one of the goals and purposes of the United Nations.” To dispel any doubt about the import of the term “resist,” the resolution invoked the authority of General Assembly Resolution 37/43 of December 3, 1982. Opposed at the time by both the U.S. and the Europeans, this proclaims “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples against foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle” (emphasis added). As everyone understood then and now, the last six words mean terrorism.

This blatant sanction of terrorism was approved by a vote of 40 to five, with seven abstentions. Two of the nine EU members of the commission, Britain and Germany, voted against the resolution, as did Canada, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic. One, Italy, was among the abstainers, as were Japan and Poland. The other six EU members—France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, and Austria—voted for it. That they understood full well what they had endorsed was made clear by the fact that each of the six lamely took the floor to explain, or rather to extenuate, its vote. (The representative of Sweden, one of Israel’s most vitriolic detractors, said that “his country supported the resolution without joy”; Belgium’s delegate “said the resolution could be seen as a call for peace . . . despite some unfortunate wording”; and so forth.)

All in all, the commission’s resolutions, reports, and speeches on the situation in the Middle East absorbed more than half its time. As a result, consideration of every other item on its agenda was severely curtailed. The commission’s “special rapporteurs”—investigators whom it employs to bring particular abuses to light—were reduced to five minutes each to present their findings. Ten of them even staged a quasi-strike in protest. But to no avail.

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Only days after the commission adjourned, new elections were held for 2003, and the United States regained its seat. Even the liberal human-rights activists who rarely tire of reciting what they perceive to be America’s failures were eager to see it back. So were the Europeans, who this time reserved an uncontested seat for the U.S.

It would be comforting to report that America’s return will put right everything that was wrong in the last session. But in truth, 2002 was different from other years only in degree. Previous sessions have seen Iran and Russia criticized, but never Syria or Saudi Arabia; Cuba has been chastised, but each year less strongly; the Chinese have had to suffer the introduction of disapproving resolutions, but never their passage; Israel has managed to get by with just four or five blatantly unfair condemnations, rather than the eight of this meeting. What distinguished this year’s proceedings was not the absence of any genuine concern for human rights but only the new extremes to which the regnant hypocrisy was taken.

In theory, the states serving on the UN’s human-rights commission are supposed to put principles of international justice ahead of their selfish interests. When the world’s single Jewish state locks horns with one of the 57 members of the Islamic Conference, the world organization is supposed to judge the dispute dispassionately. When Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and China serve on the commission, they are supposed to assess human-rights issues honestly. This never happens, of course, but it is considered retrograde to say so. Perhaps that is because, with its noble intentions and its execrable record, the human-rights commission provides as vivid an illustration as one could want of the wishful thinking behind the very idea of the United Nations.

Scholars have documented the striking absence of war among democracies, and Americans have come to appreciate the critical difference between democracies and dictatorships. It is, indeed, the most important dividing line in international politics. But it is not the only one. There is also a division between the United States and the other democracies—over, precisely, the priority given to moral considerations in foreign policy. Questions of good and evil, right and wrong, carry more weight in the United States. To be sure, Washington may feather its nest through trade barriers or turn a blind eye to repression in Saudi Arabia, but most of the issues that have separated the Atlantic allies since the cold war have revolved around Europe’s greater cynicism abroad, whether toward China, Cuba, Serbia, Iran, Iraq, or the Palestinian Authority.

The lesson in all of this is the wisdom of American unilateralism, and the folly of submitting to any new accretion of international treaties and organizations or any further role for the UN in Middle East peace efforts. Independent American action need not be a token of superpower arrogance or high-handedness. It is much more a matter of doing what we alone have both the power and the heart to do—namely, to inject a modicum of principle into the “community of nations.”

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About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.




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