May 24, 2004

May 24, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

The U.N. Bloody Hands Commission

Among the costsĀ of the Abu Ghraib scandal is the harm it does to America's standing as a champion of human rights--and the distraction it creates, in international circles, from the misdeeds of truly heinous regimes. "Whenever the United States raises a criticism of somebody else, this is immediately what will be thrown back in your face," says Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House. "You get this sort of rank, stinking hypocrisy."

Sure enough, America took a tongue-lashing at the annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, still in session as the Iraq scandal was gathering steam. The representative of none other than Sudan--a country now engaged in a Saddam-sized "ethnic cleansing" of villagers in its Darfur province--offered what is becoming the latest refrain from despots: "It is yet very ironic that the United States, while shedding crocodile tears over the situation in Darfur, is turning a blind eye to the atrocities committed by American forces against the innocent civilian population in Iraq."

At the time those words were spoken, Human Rights Watch had already released a report charging Sudan with crimes against humanity--including widespread rape, the burning of villages, the aerial bombing of civilians, and massacres by government-backed Arab militias. In a separate report, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights accused the Islamic regime of Omar Al Bashir of waging "a reign of terror" against its civilian population. The U.N. team found "massive human rights violations in Darfur perpetrated by the government . . . and its proxy militia." It's estimated that 30,000 people have been killed and over 900,000 displaced by the recent campaign of ethnic cleansing. All this against the backdrop of a 20-year civil war that has claimed the lives of 2 million people and displaced roughly twice that number.

None of its bloody history, of course, prevented Sudan from being elected to another three-year term on the Human Rights Commission. The 53-member body has a record of America-bashing that long precedes the U.S. mistreatment of Iraqi detainees. No matter what issue is on the table, Cuban delegates, for example, use it to denounce U.S. "imperialism" around the world. They have lots of allies. "The United States portrays itself as a role model for protecting social rights, but the reality is not what they would have us believe," intoned a Chinese delegate in Geneva. "It's our hope that the United States will recognize its own shortcomings."

What these countries really hope is that the propaganda value of the prison crisis will give them breathing space to continue their repressive policies. Certainly, the Human Rights Commission won't stand in their way.

Despite a vocal campaign by U.S. ambassador Richard Williamson, the commission quashed a resolution condemning China's policy of extrajudicial killings, torture, and repression of religious and political groups. The commission said nothing about Burma, the Chechen Republic, Libya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Vietnam--some of the world's most serious rights violators. A resolution criticizing Zimbabwe for a "concerted campaign of violence" against civilians died in its crib. After years of reports of torture and prison camps in North Korea, the commission agreed to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate, but no one thinks he'll be allowed into the country. Israel came in for harsh censure over its policy of assassinating terrorist leaders, while the latest round of Palestinian terrorism was shrugged off.

In all, the commission adopted 88 resolutions, on topics including toxic waste, housing, globalization, and "the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health." There were numerous denunciations of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but not a word about the abuse of prisoners, especially women, who are brutalized or raped while in government custody throughout the Arab world.

"Hundreds have perished in silence and out of sight, without even a cold announcement," writes Rajeh Khuri, a columnist at Beirut's al-Nahar daily. Much of the Arab world, he says, is "a vast Abu Ghraib prison where many have died and more are still dying in obscurity."

An especially eerie display of the U.N.'s jaundiced view of human rights occurred at the recent Geneva meeting, in what should have been a hopeful scene. An official of the new Iraq stood before the Human Rights Commission and calmly recited the evils committed under Saddam Hussein. He spoke of the political assassinations, the chemical assaults that killed thousands of Kurds, the torture chambers, the mass graves. He pledged that from now on his country would uphold international norms protecting political and religious liberties. "The previous regime was the worst violator of human rights," he said. "Our delegation is guided by the U.N. charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

It was a historic moment. Yet those in the assembly hall greeted it with no cheers, no applause, no sense of gratitude. Just a smug silence.

At the beginning of World War II, other smug moralists cited America's sins as the reason for keeping the nation out of the war against Nazism. Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and socialist critic of liberal democracy, nevertheless saw the fascist threat for what it was. "We never have the chance to choose between pure tyranny and pure freedom," he said. "We can only choose between tyranny and relative democracy." The cynical manipulation of outrage at American abuses suggests that many today still balk at the choice.

Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and editor of the forthcoming book, The End of Illusions: America's Churches and Hitler's Gathering Storm.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in "The Weekly Standard"