Special Report

Sudan Back Again

With Khartoum’s killers on the job, watch out for your human rights. Once again, the U.N. lives up to all expectations.

By 5.13.04

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NEW YORK -- File this under: Why do we need the U.N., again? In case you missed this story, the world's most discredited institution continued its steady slide into irrelevance last week when it confirmed a serial human rights abuser for a third term as a member its High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR).

For those unfamiliar with the confirmation process, it works more or less like this: Choose a country that regularly and mercilessly suppresses human rights -- a cinch considering the majority of the commission's 53 member countries, save the U.S. and handful of others, fit the description. Then, charge said country with upholding and extending human rights around the world, the thinking being that…well, no one is quite sure. What is certain is that the process, a kind of affirmative action for dictators, works every time. Sound frightening? Never fear: As of last week, Sudan is back on the job.

Now, it's tempting to denounce the continued presence of the Khartoum's barbaric Islamists as yet another low for the UNHCHR, especially when they are busy at work trying to wipe half of Sudan's civilian population off the map. But here is what's more damning: Sudan's membership does little to sully UNHCHR's reputation. After all, Sudan is rejoining a roster of inveterate human rights violators: Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and China are all proud UNHCHR members. So is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which, it bears noting, is neither democratic, nor a republic. (Nor, indeed, were one to ask the Ugandan and Rwandan paramilitaries who presently obtain in the country's eastern province, a Congo.)

One bright spot in the UNHCHR's ongoing charade is that is just that: an ongoing charade. That meant plenty of entertainment at Turtle Bay last week. By far the best performance was turned in by the U.S. representative to the commission, Sichan Siv. Incensed by Sudan's confirmation, Siv raged at Sudan's serial human rights abuses, tartly noting that its membership threatened to undermine the UNHCHR's work. A pro of the dramatic exit, Siv then stormed out of the U.N. conference hall, grumbling about not wanting "to participate in such absurdity."

It was an inspiring performance, not least because no one can do moral outrage quite like American delegates to the U.N., for whom it is practically a job requirement. Personally, though, I don't buy this business about Sudan undermining the UNHCHR's work. Why? Well, let's revisit the so-called work the commission has done over the last year.

FACED WITH STEPPED-UP repression against Iranian reformists, the UNHCHR decided altogether to suspend its scrutiny of Iran. Questionable to the human rights-minded, this was exactly what the UNHCHR's dictators ordered: Having distanced themselves from the distasteful task of censuring actual human rights abuses, the UNHCHR was now free to carry out what for years has been its sole function: finding new ways to lay the blame for the latest horror of Palestinian terrorism squarely on the Zionist entity, which, as many know, is U.N.-speak for Israel. In fact, inflammatory resolutions that demonize Israel, of which no fewer than five were adopted last year, encounter no opposition from the Jewish state. The Middle East's lone democracy is not a UNHCHR member.

And rogue states aren't the only ones who have learned to abuse the UNHCHR. Russia too is getting the hang of it, as the Moscow-backed resolution that last year wended its way through the commission suggests. Purportedly drafted to combat resurgent Nazism, the resolution was actually aimed at curbing anti-Russian demonstrations in Latvia. After garnering the unanimous approval of the commission's members, who can appreciate a good crackdown on free-speech when they see one, the resolution met symbolic resistance from the U.S. corner. Unwilling to act as the Kremlin's stooge, the United States found itself in the awkward position of voting against a resolution to condemn Nazism. However this may have weighed on America's conscience, for the UNHCHR, it was all in a day's work.

Seen in this context, Representative Siv's talk about undermining UNHCHR's work does not strike me as especially convincing. The stark fact is that the world's preeminent human rights body has today become an instrument suppressing the very rights it was designed to safeguard. Regimes that trample human rights are shielded from reproach, while democracies are singled out for scorn. And the UNHCHR's moral collapse is only a part of the broader, institutional failure of the United Nations. Without dredging up recent unpleasantness like the Oil for Food fraud, the unhappy reality is that Sudan's membership on the UNHCHR dovetails with the U.N.'s corrupted mission.

Where else but the UNHCHR can a government like Sudan's, complicit in the deaths of two million of its citizens since 1983, be held up as a human rights watchdog? Where else can a Sudanese government that sponsors roving Arab militias to rape and execute black African minorities and torch and pillage their villages, lay claim to concerned humanitarianism? And where else can a terrorist thug assault the commitment to human rights of its leading champion, as Sudan's U.N. ambassador did last week when he equated the isolated perversity of a couple of American prison guards with 21 years of state-sanctioned murder? If the UNHCHR's work makes all this possible, then perhaps undermining it is not such a bad thing.

Yet the UNHCHR is not entirely useless. With observers frantically searching for some -- any -- index to measure achievable success in Iraq, the UNHCHR may prove the perfect benchmark. I propose this: If Iraq no longer qualifies for membership in that despot-ridden commission, it will be safe to call our efforts a success. Until then, the question is still worth asking: Why do we need the U.N., again

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.