March 22, 2004
By Joseph Loconte
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
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
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
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
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
Originally appeared in
The Weekly Standard online.
First Appeared in The Weekly Standard
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.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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