May 9, 2001 | Commentary on International Organizations

Disregarding Human Rights

Nothing could show more clearly the United Nations' lack of commitment toward curbing human-rights abuses than its absurd refusal to re-elect the United States to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

This diplomatic slap in the face was compounded by the fact that the world body has elected Sudan to a seat on the commission, even though its government has spent the last few years stoking a civil war, bombing civilians, tolerating slavery and supporting international terrorism.

Worse, our rejection was orchestrated largely by Cuba and China -- both of whom continue to sit on the commission, despite their own well-documented human-rights violations.

Perhaps the most upsetting factor about this whole episode is that it was engineered mostly for political reasons. Some of our most vociferous U.N. opponents have made it clear the United States is being punished for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol -- a treaty that purportedly will stop global warming -- and for wanting to field a missile-defense system.

This gives ammunition to President Bush's domestic critics, who blame him for America's ouster. "This means our government will no longer have a voice on the principal international body that evaluates human rights in countries like China, Cuba, Iran, Libya and Sudan," House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said. "This is very unfortunate."

Actually, what's unfortunate is what this action reveals about the United Nations and the effectiveness with which it evaluates such abuses.

First, it shows growing solidarity among human-rights abusers. With the exception of Iran, all the countries listed by Gephardt currently hold seats on the 53-member Human Rights Commission, along with terrorist states such as Syria. Clearly, many members hope to block the monitoring of human-rights practices, slow the reporting of violations, and avoid denouncing human-rights abusers.

Second, it indicates the United Nations is becoming more a danger to human rights enforcement than a defender of such rights. The United States has proven itself one of the world's staunchest and most dependable human-rights advocates. Kicking us off the U.N.'s commission while welcoming some rather infamous violators casts serious doubts on the United Nations' commitment to enforcing human rights around the world.

Indeed, using U.S. membership on the commission as a political chit -- as a way to protest unpopular but unrelated policy positions -- tarnishes the image of the commission and vastly weakens efforts to punish those who violate human rights.

Ironically, the U.S. ouster can be traced in part to recent efforts by U.S. officials to censure China and Cuba for their human-rights abuses. In a useful illustration of why habitual abusers actively lobby for seats on the commission, China used its position to strike an American resolution criticizing its record on human rights. Not to be outdone, Cuba used its influence to dilute a resolution denouncing its record.

And now they are joined on the commission by Sudan, which has been reviled internationally for its role in killing and dislocating millions of its citizens. Even a ridiculously whitewashed report submitted recently to the commission by Sudan special rapporteur Gerhart R. Baum conceded that "government opponents and others face a permanent threat to their fundamental freedoms, and their political actions tend to be criminalized [in Sudan]."

The absurdity of kicking America off the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has the virtue of clarity, if nothing else: It's a stark reminder to every American that the United Nations is not a community of democracies and not a serious defender of human rights.

The Bush administration should view this action for what it is: a political tantrum by our allies and a calculated tactic by human rights violators to undermine the work of the commission -- and it should resolve to defend more forcefully America's interests at the United Nations.

"We prefer to have dialogue," China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Yingfan, said after the vote. "The United States does not." Mr. Wang's right. We prefer principled action -- something we won't be seeing out of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights anytime soon.

Daniel Fisk is a former deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage's Center for International Trade and Economics.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations

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