Human Rights & Wrongs

COMMENTARY Civil Society

Human Rights & Wrongs

Mar 22nd, 2004 6 min read

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights begins its 60th session this week in Geneva. For the next six weeks the 53 member states will generate, if nothing else, a cacophony of moral indignation.

Delegates will hear about the use of torture in Iran, violence against women in Saudi Arabia, and the abduction of children by militias across Africa. Burma may finally come in for a scolding, after years of military atrocities. Israel, as usual, will face numerous resolutions condemning its treatment of Palestinians, though none is likely to criticize Yasser Arafat. The United States can expect bitter denunciations for its war on terrorism, while state sponsors of Islamic jihadists may escape blame. The Bush administration will be working, meanwhile, to advance a new coalition of democracies intended to outmaneuver the dictatorships.

The Commission's byzantine deliberations, then, will resemble those of the U.N. General Assembly--awash in both high-mindedness and hypocrisy. "What you'll see is how effective and skilled the dictatorships are in the diplomatic game," says Michael Goldfarb, press officer for Freedom House, the oldest human rights organization in the world. "They've turned the Commission into a rogues' gallery and effectively killed any substantive debate about human rights."

U.N. officials reject that view, but recent history tends to support it. State Department officials point to at least 18 repressive regimes now on the Commission, whose members serve three-year terms. China exerts strong influence, despite the Communist government's unrelenting crackdowns on political and religious groups. Nigeria, another member, is widely reported to support torture, extrajudicial killings, and radical Islam. Sudan is guilty of genocide and considered a state sponsor of terrorism. The Commission has no agreed definition of terrorism; it even endorsed suicide bombings against Israel as a legitimate form of armed conflict. In a 2001 vote that stunned the Bush administration, the Commission expelled the United States, a first in the body's history. Libya held the chair last year, elected by a vote of 33 to 3.

The upshot is that the Commission is almost unable to "name and shame" even the most despotic governments. Take North Korea. Evidence had mounted for years of its brutalities--state-backed torture, starvation, death camps--yet no resolution condemning it was passed until last year. "The Human Rights Commission has taken many years to get to the sad place that it is today," says Lorne Kraner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. "If you don't want to be criticized by the Commission, the best thing to do is to get a seat on the Commission."

That's a far cry from the ideals laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the seminal document of the original Commission on Human Rights created after World War II. With the atrocities of the Holocaust still fresh, the authors warned that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind." The Declaration's 30 articles enumerate political and social rights, including the right to life and liberty, equality under the law, and freedom of speech and assembly. There are also prohibitions against slavery, torture, and arbitrary arrest.

The crown jewel is Article 18: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The provision, drafted by Lebanese ambassador Charles Malik, includes the right to change one's religion. When first proposed, it enraged the Communist and Muslim delegates (six of the original European members belonged to the Soviet bloc, while nine members claimed Islam as their dominant religion). Nevertheless, Malik--an Arab Christian and a powerful intellectual force on the Commission--stood his ground. "All those who stress the elemental economic rights and needs of man are for the most part impressed by his sheer animal existence. This is materialism, whatever else it may be called," Malik argued. "But unless man's proper nature, unless his mind and spirit are brought out, set apart, protected, and promoted, the struggle for human rights is a sham and a mockery."

The U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration in 1948 without a single dissenting vote (though with a number of states abstaining). Its language affirming the "equal and inalienable rights" of all people influenced scores of postwar and postcolonial constitutions and treaties. Drew University's Johannes Morsink calls it the "secular bible" for literally hundreds of advocacy groups and thousands of foot soldiers in the field.

Inevitably, though, the Declaration is widely referenced but little understood. Its social and economic guarantees--which include even a "right to rest and leisure"--are regularly invoked to deflect attention from violations of more fundamental rights.

That may be changing. The Bush administration regards the promotion of democratic freedoms as essential to the war on terrorism. "As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish," Bush said last fall, "it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export." In a policy speech earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States would "always keep in the forefront of our efforts the necessity to deal with human rights in every country that we have relations with."

What might this mean in Geneva? The United States, back on the Commission, is expected to push for statements or resolutions on Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Nepal, Nigeria, North Korea, and Zimbabwe. Richard Williamson, chairman of the U.S. delegation, wants a resolution against China, but acknowledges it will be difficult to pass. This despite Beijing's record of arbitrary arrests, prison camps, and "egregious violations" against religious communities, according to Human Rights Watch and other groups. As David Aikman, author of Jesus in Beijing, told Congress last year, "China's political leadership appears to have decided that any religion in China, if not strictly supervised, could turn into the regime's Achilles' heel."

The administration also will have to play defense. A Brazilian resolution defeated last year is expected to be recycled, calling for a ban on all forms of discrimination by sexual orientation. Conservative groups see this as a ploy to marginalize religious organizations that uphold traditional marriage--an effort already gaining ground in Europe. (Last year Sweden criminalized speech that might be "offensive or threatening" to homosexuals, and charges already have been brought against a Pentecostal pastor.) Moreover, the resolution does not define sexual orientation or limit sexual "rights" by age, which could make it more difficult to prevent the abuse and trafficking of children.

Commission watchers say that until its membership improves, its work will be seriously compromised. The problem is not only rogue governments, but regional coalitions that help elect states to terms on the Commission and then work to thwart resolutions against them. Even the democracies in Africa, for example, tend to overlook brutalities committed by their neighbors. Mark Lagon, deputy assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, suggests that nations under U.N. sanctions not be allowed on the Commission. Meanwhile, foreign ministers from 10 democracies--including Chile, Poland, South Korea, and the United States--are promoting a Community of Democracies to function as a caucus within the United Nations. Members must actually adhere to the principles of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the session in Geneva, they plan to build support for a resolution promoting democratic institutions.

U.N. officials deny the suggestion that the human rights commission has betrayed its founding vision, or that higher standards for participation are needed. "You don't advance human rights by preaching only to the converted," argues Shashi Tharoor, U.N. undersecretary-general for communications and public information. "The ship of universal human rights cannot set sail by leaving human beings from some countries on the shore."

Others disagree. Habib Malik, son of Charles Malik and a professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, explains that those suffering under repressive regimes won't be rescued by the anemic values of multiculturalism. "The argument that 'inclusiveness' is the only way these states may start to change--I think it's baloney," he says. "You have to emphasize the practical and empirical power of a set of moral directives . . . to uphold individual rights."

It may be that the Universal Declaration has been more useful to that end than the Commission--just as Charles Malik seems to have anticipated. Even as the Commission was working to win approval of the Universal Declaration (no small feat at the onset of the Cold War), he wondered whether democratic nations would have the resolve to implement its principles. "I have observed a certain degree of inordinate caution, nay perhaps even of cynicism, with regard to carrying out the mandate," Malik said. "It is as though the real will to achieve and ensure human rights were lacking." The passage of time has borne out his lament.

-Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a regular commentator for National Public Radio.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard online.

First Appeared in The Weekly Standard