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.
In the Council’s first year of operation, the group UN Watch figured that just 13 of the 47 members had positive voting scores. Several democracies, most notably India, Indonesia, Mali, Senegal, and South Africa, voted more like dictatorships.
During its short life the Council has taken several steps to prevent action against genuine human rights violators. Every UN state is supposed to face a periodic review of its human rights record. Yet no reviews were conducted in 2006, allowing the one-year members to escape oversight.
GOING FORWARD, the Council intends to hold 48 reviews a year, which will last all of three hours. The Council scheduled Israel to be among the first nations reviewed while waiting on many of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Human rights experts are barred from participating in these reviews. Governments are to be “fully involved in the outcome” and the review is to take into account “the level of development and specificities of countries,” providing ample excuses for even the worst abuses.
The Council has focused on Israel — the latest denunciation was delivered at an emergency meeting in late January — eliminated the Special Rapporteurs for Belarus and Cuba, reduced the independence of the experts employed in reviewing countries, and created a new Code of Conduct to help shield miscreant states.
The Code emphasizes “restraint, moderation, and discretion” in discussing states that kill and jail their citizens.
At the behest of Muslim governments, led by Pakistan, the Council adopted a resolution denouncing the “defamation” of religion. This measure did not include any defense of freedom of religious belief and practice. Rather, the resolution, later approved by the General Assembly, sought to protect religion, namely Islam, from criticism, overriding free speech rights.
Finally, the Council has turned political correctness into an overarching, absurdist theme. For instance, at the 2001 UN Durban Racism Conference, Israel was singled out as a racist state — a logical outgrowth of the old UN resolution equating Zionism with racism.
The Durban spectacle continues, with planning for the UN Durban Racism Review Conference, scheduled for next year.
EVEN WHEN THE Council attempts to advance human rights, it does so only grudgingly. In October Vitit Muntarghorn, the Special Rapporteur on North Korea, painted an ugly picture — “the human rights situation in the DPRK remains grave in a number of key areas,” he explained.
Still, he made an extra effort to find good news on which to report. And the North remained unapologetic.
It is no wonder, then, that Robert Hagen, a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN, told the General Assembly in November, “Some appear more determined to use the Council to defend abusive governments than to protect the victims of human rights violations.”
Equally appalling is the UN’s willingness to routinely reward human rights abusers with leadership positions. Start with the Security Council — China and Russia are permanent members, while a multitude of bad actors, like Libya, elected last year, have filled the rotating spots.
But this is merely a start. As Anne Bayefsky pointed out, last May “Zimbabwe was elected to chair the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.”
As if any explanation was needed, she continued, “The government of Robert Mugabe vies for the title of the worst example of unsustainable development in modern times, having raped and pillaged the vast human and natural resources of the country for decades.”
DESPITE ITS SOARING rhetoric, the UN does little to improve human rights around the world. Those who are more interested in improving human rights than in posturing should look for new approaches.
One possibility would be to more directly engage democratic members of the Human Rights Council, like India, Indonesia, and South Africa, which now often side with the oppressors. Another strategy would be to refuse to fund the Council.
Improved cooperation among democratic states in pressing human rights initiatives also would be a valuable step. Allied states could challenge the membership qualifications of serial human rights abusers in the UN itself. And Western states could create an entirely new organization, either as a substitute or supplement to the UN.
The failure of the UN to live up to its original billing is particularly tragic for those around the world who are oppressed by their governments. Some fairly nasty regimes now sit as full members of the UN and hold leadership positions there that enable them to thwart international condemnation.
Citizens in free and democratic states have an obligation to respond.
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