Last week's gathering of world leaders in New York, marking the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, already looks like another forlorn triumph of rhetoric over reform. Secretary General Kofi Annan billed the event as a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to confront global threats and revitalize the United Nations: "It is, in short, an opportunity for all humankind." It was, in fact, a missed opportunity: Never has the gulf been greater between the humanistic ideals of the international body and the shameful performance of its institutions - a gulf hardly acknowledged by the summit's final outcome document.
Nowhere is this failure more grievous than in the U.N.'s record on human rights. First, there's the dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights. Annan admitted earlier this year that the commission has "cast a shadow on the reputation of the U.N. system as a whole." That conclusion, however, should have come long ago. For years the commission has allowed repressive governments to hijack its agenda, quash criticism of gross human-rights abusers, and vilify the state of Israel. According to Freedom House, 15 of the 53 commission members should be ranked as "unfree" nations. Even Sudan, accused of genocide, remains a member in good standing.
The U.N. response? Its outcome report ignores the flagrant mendacity of the Human Rights Commission. It calls for the creation of a human-rights council, but leaves the details to future negotiations. The authors obviously reached no agreement on even minimal criteria for membership - unable to suggest, for example, that nations under U.N. Security Council sanction for human rights violations be barred. It's not even clear if the new council would continue to pass country-specific resolutions to name and shame the worst violators.
Second, there's the problem of the exploitation and sexual abuse of refugees. It's bad enough that U.N. "peacekeepers" are notoriously unable to protect women in U.N. camps in western Sudan (where leaving the camps for food invites rape). It is utterly contemptible that U.N. peacekeepers themselves are part of the problem: With the apparent complicity of U.N. officials, they've created a predatory sexual culture that's gone unchallenged for at least a decade.
Late last year, Kofi Annan finally admitted that there were 150 allegations of abuse by U.N. peacekeepers and staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They involve U.N. military and civilian personnel from Nepal, Morocco, Tunisia, Uruguay, South Africa, Pakistan, and France. The victims are defenseless refugees - many of them children - who've already been brutalized by years of war. The charges, still being investigated, come four years after another U.N. report found sexual violence against refugees in West Africa to be "endemic." As Amnesty International puts it, rather aptly: "Even the guardians have to be guarded."
The U.N.'s latest response? The summiteers in New York made no direct reference to the scandal, preferring a passionless pass-the-buck recommendation: "We...urge those measures adopted in the relevant General Assembly resolutions based upon the recommendations mentioned above be fully implemented without delay." Urging, however, is not the same thing as acting. There have been no calls for an independent investigation of the Congo sex scandal, no meaningful steps to prevent further abuses, and no effective system of accountability.
Finally, consider the posture of U.N leaders toward some of the most important defenders of human rights - the charities and faith-based groups that uphold the highest ideals of the United Nations. It's true that in recent years the U.N. has devoted more attention to "civil society," the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that offer social services or advocate on behalf of various social and political causes. On the eve of this year's summit, 3,500 staff from over 1,160 NGOs met with U.N. officials to promote their vision of a retooled U.N.
It all sounds very reform-minded, until one studies the list of participants and attends some of the meetings. Organizations that work to assist AIDS orphans, eradicate human trafficking, curb prostitution, or defend religious liberty don't get much air time. The majority of the registered groups have little interest in promoting basic democratic rights. Some - from the Swiss-based Institute for Planetary Synthesis to the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization in Espanola, New Mexico - are just plain wacky. Many function simply as front groups for statist and despotic governments, such as China, Cuba, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, most of the U.N.'s favorite NGOs would use international rulings to overturn democratic protections in their home countries. The U.N.'s vision of civil society, in other words, is a penumbra of activist groups that simply endorse its agenda of centralized economies, large welfare states, and massive social engineering. Nevertheless, Shashi Tharoor, undersecretary general for communications, was effusive with praise: "You are the guardians of the reform of the international system."
If that's the case, then we can expect the human-rights agenda of the United Nations to slide even further into irrelevance and ignominy. The quickened conscience of U.N. leaders 60 years ago, in the wake of the atrocities of WWII, is missing today - and probably not recoverable.
Joseph Loconte is a research fellow in religion and Nile Gardiner is a fellow in Anglo-American security at the Heritage Foundation. Both served on the 2005 Congressional Task Force on the United Nations.
First Appeared in National Review Online