The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the world's most
important political body devoted to human rights concerns, is
halfway through its deliberations here. Each year delegates from
the 53 member states meet for six weeks to name the worst offending
countries and adopt resolutions condemning their abuses. For years,
however, the commission instead has been a haven for rogue
governments - who get elected to the body in order to shield
themselves from international scrutiny and criticism. The failure
of international leadership has become increasingly intolerable,
especially in an age when terrorism and repressive regimes go hand
Indeed, the Commission on Human Rights no longer can be counted on to "name and shame" even the most egregious violators. North Korea, for example, knows how to bully its Asian neighbors in the United Nations, so that not even overwhelming evidence of its misdeeds will guarantee a tough resolution against the regime. Sudan quietly uses the promise of oil to buy off potential critics.
Thus state groups, like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and private actors like Freedom House, America's oldest human rights organization, release their own "worst of the worst" guides to bad-guy governments. Their lists include Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Between them, these states engage in a raft of injustices -arbitrary arrests, the employment of child soldiers and violence against women, to name a few. Yet it's doubtful that any but a handful will be slapped with critical resolutions by the commission.
Compare this Orwellian parlor game to the work of the original Commission on Human Rights. Created in the aftermath of World War II, the organization was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. When the Communist bloc delegates invoked America's race problems to stonewall the commission's agenda, she wryly suggested they exchange experts to inspect each other's discriminatory policies (the Soviets declined). She pushed for the adoption of an international bill of rights, believing that even a non-binding statement of principles could help redraw the map of free nations.
She was right. In 1948 the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the commission's sparsely written manifesto of political and social guarantees. For 60 years, it has served as the Magna Carta of the modern human rights movement.
The commission's accomplishment, at the start of the cold war, would have been inconceivable without the moral prestige of its leadership. A key figure was Rene Cassin, the French legal scholar, who lost family members in Hitler's death camps and fought in the French resistance. The hallmark of modern tyrannies, he argued, is their denial of a common human nature, a negation that leads to all the barbarous acts that have "outraged the conscience of mankind."
The other decisive voice was that of Charles Malik, the Lebanese ambassador, philosopher and outspoken Arab Christian. Malik insisted that the declaration include Article 18: the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to change one's religious beliefs. Unless the proposed bill "can create conditions which will allow man to develop ultimate loyalties . . . over and above his loyalty to the State," he warned, "we shall have legislated not for man's freedom but for his virtual enslavement."
Back then, Muslim delegates balked at Article 18 - just as they ignore it today. But the serpentine connections between terrorism and faith-based dictatorships cannot be wished away. The prospect of democracy in states like Afghanistan is bound up with their willingness to endorse religious freedom. Saudi Arabia, home of most of the 9/11 hijackers, allows virtually no freedom of religion. Nigeria, increasingly devoted to Sharia, or Islamic law, supports extrajudicial killings. As long as states like these are allowed on the commission - at least 18 members are themselves considered repressive - its proceedings will remain a politicized sham.
The best hope of breaking their grip may be the creation of a democracy caucus now being pushed by Chile, Poland, South Korea and the United States. Caucus supporters are meeting here to discuss how to outmaneuver the dictatorships and steer the commission back to the core values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The original Commission on Human Rights, acutely conscious of Nazi atrocities, recognized an evil regime when it saw one. Today's members should gaze a while longer into the abyss of our own day - the mass graves in Iraq, the bombings in Madrid, the North Korean death camps - and perhaps be shaken by a cold breeze of moral clarity.
Joseph Loconte is a religion fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The New York Times.