June 17, 2005 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

A New Vision for Human Rights

Two years ago a newspaper headline in Khartoum, Sudan, proclaimed that the government's human rights file was ''closed forever." It appeared a week after the UN Commission on Human Rights voted to remove Sudan from a list of countries deserving special scrutiny. Since then the government-backed militia has killed more than 140,000 people, while another 250,000 have died from disease and malnutrition.

Still, members of the Commission on Human Rights, at their April session in Geneva, failed to get tough with the dictatorship in Khartoum. They may not get another chance: The temper of a congressional panel report on UN reform, released this week, suggests it's time to abolish the commission and promote the cause of human rights largely outside the United Nations.

Even UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his reform plan unveiled earlier this year, admits that the commission has a ''credibility deficit" and that ''piecemeal reforms will not be enough." Unfortunately, Annan's proposal -- to replace the organization with a council elected directly by the General Assembly -- is exactly the piecemeal measure he warns against. It won't prevent repressive states from manipulating the cause of human rights. It won't produce an international body with the moral clarity to ''name and shame" the worst violators.

Part of the problem is the structure of the UN itself -- a body with no standards for membership that gives equal voice to dictatorships and democracies. Thus, states such as China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, and even Sudan serve as members in good standing on the commission. As Shashi Tharoor, UN undersecretary general for communications, explains it: ''You don't advance human rights by preaching only to the converted."

Therein lies the flawed idealism of the UN's human-rights apparatus. The commitment to ''multiculturalism," useful in other contexts, assaults the concept of moral norms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It thus undercuts the goal of pressuring regimes to abandon policies of violence and terror.

Exploited by the unconverted, this ethos has brought disgrace upon the entire UN system. As Sean Penn quips to Nicole Kidman, who plays an idealistic UN translator in the movie ''The Interpreter": ''You've had a tough year, lady." That's putting it gently. Genocide in Sudan, unchecked violence in Congo, the widespread sexual abuse of refugees by UN peacekeepers, the epic oil-for-food scandal -- all these failures owe a debt to the UN creed.

What can be done to improve the cause of human rights? Many activists want meaningful criteria for membership on any UN body addressing human rights, such as banning states under UN sanction. That's a worthy goal. But given the composition of the General Assembly -- barely 88 fully free nations among 191 -- it's unlikely to happen.

If the UN refuses to confront its human-rights hypocrisy, the United States should pull out of the commission and move to abolish it. Next, Congress should appoint an independent human rights ambassador to head a new US commission on human rights. It could be modeled on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a quasi-governmental group that monitors religious liberty abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.

Finally, the United States should mobilize a ''democracy caucus" to protect human rights and expand democratic freedoms. The new US human rights ambassador would lobby other governments in the fledgling Community of Democracies, founded in 2000 in Warsaw, to establish their own human rights commissioners and advisory bodies. They must be a morally serious coalition of the willing, operating mostly outside the official UN system, that offer a bright alternative to the corrupted process in Geneva. No one claims that democracies are without their contradictions and injustices. Yet it is democracies that have the best record of defending human dignity. And it is the United States, a democracy rooted in a clear set of moral and religious ideals, that must once again lead the way.

As Charles Malik, the Lebanese diplomat and Arab Christian intellectual, recalled after completing his work on the original Commission on Human Rights: ''The American spirit of freedom . . . and profound respect for individual human beings permeated and suffused our atmosphere all around," he said. ''It was an intangible thing, but a most real thing all the same."

Millions of people today, whose basic rights are under attack, crave that same spirit of freedom and respect for human life. Too bad they can't find it at the United Nations.

Mr. Loconte is a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield). Nile Gardiner is a fellow in Anglo-American security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

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

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Boston Globe