The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, comes close to counting as a founding document.
In the Declaration, the Assembly affirmed that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The body also warned that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”
By and large, the Declaration offers a positive vision for humanity. It has been supplemented by subsequent agreements, declarations, and exhortations over the years. These honeyed words suggest that the United Nations is devoted to promoting human rights.
However, it is difficult for people familiar with the workings of the UN to review these words without laughing, or crying. They promise so much. Yet the institution behind them has failed so badly.
For years the UN’s primary vehicle for advancing human rights was the Commission on Human Rights, which was established by the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To say that the Commission was never an effective advocate for human rights is an understatement.
In fact, over the years the Commission’s members included Algeria, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe, human rights violators all. Libya was chosen Commission chairman in 2003.
Before the Commission’s merciful death, less than half of the members were judged “free” by Freedom House.
THE COMMISSION WAS widely viewed as ineffective at best; an enabler of human rights violators at worst. Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation charged that the body “devolved into a feckless organization, which human rights abusers used to block criticism, and a forum for attacks on Israel.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, complained: “The reason highly abusive governments flock to the Commission is to prevent condemnation of themselves and their kind, and most of the time they succeed.”
Even UN Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that the panel had a “credibility deficit” and was casting “a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole” — not an easy task, given the UN’s shady reputation.
So diplomats devoted much effort into turning the Commission into the Human Rights Council in 2006. The Council was launched with great fanfare and expressions of hope for the future.
America’s UN ambassador, John Bolton, warned at the time: “We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor.”
His words have proven only too correct.
THE COUNCIL’S MEMBERSHIP has shifted, but not for the better. The most seats, 13 each, go to Africa and Asia, the areas of the world with the largest number of dictatorships and human rights violators. The U.S., Europeans, and other industrialized states actually have fewer seats.
The Council now includes numerous human rights violators as members: Angola, Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Madagascar, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Almost half of the members are undemocratic.
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