Earlier this month the Pakistani ambassador to the
United Nations, chafing over a U.S. plan to salvage the discredited
Human Rights Commission, exemplified why the very idea of U.N.
reform looks more and more like a gothic fantasy. The ambassador
was indignant at the notion that states under U.N. sanction for
rights abuses should be kept off a newly created Human Rights
Council. "The presumption that a country is a violator of human
rights is very subjective," complained Munir Akram. "If you want to
create criteria...that exclude certain countries, why not those
that don't support trade liberalization or that don't implement
foreign aid targets? The knife cuts both ways."
Apologists for repressive governments, of course, love to talk this
way: Farm subsidies are the moral equivalent of women being
brutalized by militias in Congo or sold into sexual slavery in
Cambodia. Or, in the case of Pakistan, of religious minorities
being jailed and assaulted for allegedly violating blasphemy laws.
In other words, no nation's political culture is better or worse
than any other's.
It is not just problematic regimes that debase the concept of human
rights with this kind of evasion. This is the logic of
multiculturalism, an ethos that infects the United Nations from top
to bottom. Echoed endlessly in U.N. reports and resolutions, this
ethos has helped create a deep-seated cynicism about the nature of
human rights. More than any other factor, it threatens to derail
the current effort to reform the Human Rights Commission before its
March meeting in Geneva.
Indeed, the ethic of multiculturalism has finally shredded the
legitimacy of the U.N.'s premier human rights organization. Even
the Office of the Secretary-General has awakened to the problem.
Last year Kofi Annan complained that the Commission has "cast a
shadow on the reputation on the U.N. system as a whole." Mark
Malloch Brown, his chief of staff, now calls the performance of the
organization "the litmus test of U.N. renewal."
They only hint at the enormity of the crisis. It's bad enough that
repressive states make up about a fourth of the 53 nations with a
seat on the Human Rights Commission - states such as China, Cuba,
Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The same states use their position to mute
criticism of their thuggish treatment of journalists, political
opponents, women, and religious minorities. Worse still, with a
wink and a nod they manipulate the U.N. system to block meaningful
action against the world's most despotic regimes.
The Bush Administration has suggested that it will not return to a
human rights body that changes in name only. "We're finished with
the Human Rights Commission in Geneva," vowed Nicholas Burns, Under
Secretary of State for Political Affairs, at a briefing last fall.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insists that a new Human Rights
Council "should never - never - empower brutal dictatorships to sit
in judgment of responsible democracies."
It's unclear, though, whether any initiative could overcome the
institutional inertia to reform. The White House is pushing a
package of measures to improve the composition - and the
deliberations - of the proposed Council. Members would focus on
"gross and systematic" violations of human rights; be elected by a
two-thirds vote of the General Assembly; be required to get letters
of endorsement from at least half of the candidate's regional
group; and be excluded from membership if they faced U.N.
resolutions for terrorism or human rights violations. Taken
together, it's a modest but sensible proposal.
Nevertheless, some U.N. watchers rightly worry that a General
Assembly vote would still allow dictatorships onto the Human Rights
Council, while keeping the United States off the body. (The Islamic
Conference, for example, is composed of 56 nations, enough to block
U.S. admission.) John Bolton, American Ambassador to the United
Nations, angered some human-rights activists recently when he
suggested that the permanent five members of the Security Council
be guaranteed a slot. That would fulfill a White House goal of
keeping the United States engaged in the process. But the inclusion
of Russia and China is a bridge too far: It almost certainly would
quash the larger objective of having stable democracies dominate
the U.N.'s human rights machinery.
Perhaps it's time for a thought experiment: Would any or all of
these reforms produce a human rights organization that actually
prodded the United Nations to confront a human rights catastrophe -
the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Sudan, for example?
Consider the African Union, the organization formed to promote
democracy on the continent and which regularly sends member states
to the Human Rights Commission. AU troops have provided a measure
of security in war-torn Darfur. But, until recently, its commitment
to African solidarity made it unwilling even to criticize the
Sudanese government publicly. Over the objections of human rights
groups, the AU held its annual summit in Khartoum last week - and
debated whether or not to turn over leadership of the organization
Likewise, the Arab League, which also has members on the
Commission, has opposed tough measures against the government of
Sudan out of sympathy with the Islamic dictatorship of Omar
al-Bashir. Meanwhile, a Security Council resolution to implement
sanctions against Sudan has gone nowhere, thanks in part to China,
whose largest oil company, PetroChina, is heavily invested in the
country. China, of course, is a regular presence in Geneva. Any
human rights organization embedded in the U.N. system would face
this culture of real politik.
A U.N. working-group on the Human Rights Council is negotiating the
future of the organization, but - based on the debate so far - it
likely would include governments with strong political, financial,
or sectarian motives to preserve the status quo. Even the U.N.
Democracy Caucus (UNDC), created to promote democracy and human
rights, is having trouble shaking free of this dynamic. A study
released last year by the Democracy Coalition Project showed a
"persistent propensity" among democratic states to cling to
regional alliances and avoid confronting human-rights abusers. Says
executive director Ted Piccone, "There is little consensus among
UNDC members to condemn even some of the worst violators of human
U.N. defenders shrug all this off by claiming that the United
Nations is only as good as its member states. That's a half-truth:
By giving dictatorships equal voting power with democracies, the
system almost guarantees that no meaningful agreement can be
reached as to what counts as a violation of human rights. John
Prendergast, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group,
emphasizes the political will of the Security Council: "All the
reports and speeches of these U.N. bodies count for nothing," he
says, "if the Security Council is not prepared to fulfill its
responsibilities." True enough. Yet it's hard to conceive of
non-democratic states - and there are plenty of them on the
Security Council - eager to fulfill their human-rights obligations,
especially when there are no serious consequences for failing to do
Shouldn't the task of defending fundamental human rights be limited
to democratic states with a measurable record of success? And if
such an alliance can't function effectively within the United
Nations, isn't it time to consider operating outside of it?
A growing number of scholars, it seems, believes it is. Ivo Daalder
of the Brookings Institution and James Lindsay at the Council on
Foreign Relations have called for the creation of a new coalition
of democracies "to confront common security challenges." Ruth
Wedgewood, professor of international law and organizations at
Johns Hopkins University, argues for a U.S. policy of "competitive
multilateralism" - that is, creating informal coalitions outside of
the United Nations to tackle issues of mutual concern. "There still
seems to be no momentum for change at the United Nations," she
writes. "If things can't be changed from within, members may need
to vote with their feet, one issue at a time." Joshua Muravchik, a
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is equally blunt.
"The effort to be a proto-world government is the crux of the
U.N.'s worst failings," he writes in
The Future of the United Nations. Rather, he argues, a group of
democracies could form a committee on human rights to "forthrightly
condemn and publicize egregious abuses."
U.N. officials bristle at these suggestions, but their failure to
speak and act unambiguously to defend human dignity has invited
them. Kofi Annan's 2004 High-Level Panel Report on U.N. Reform, for
example, argued that no country - for any reason - should be denied
membership on the Human Rights Commission. In the same breath, the
panel insisted that "the United Nations was never intended to be a
utopian exercise." Yet, with regard to its core mandate of human
rights protection, that's exactly what much of the organization has
become. Even at this late hour, U.N. negotiators can't seem to
agree on any criteria for membership; some even want to do away
with resolutions that name and shame offending nations.
It's a far cry from the organization that gave the world a
universal declaration of human rights. Having begun by asserting
the inviolability of fundamental rights, the Commission now
deliberates as if such rights are endlessly negotiable. Having once
held as absolutely binding the claims of a universal moral code,
the same body treats these claims as mere preferences - and easily
disposable preferences at that. Charles Malik, the Lebanese
diplomat who succeeded Eleanor Roosevelt as president of the Human
Rights Commission, warned against this trend. "Either there is a
common morality about man that can be codified and not only
respected but also actually observed under a rule of law," he said,
"or we are on the verge of chaos."
The moral chaos of the Commission ranks as one of the worst
scandals in a scandal-ridden United Nations. Thus the spectacle
before us: The U.N.'s politicization of human rights is diverting
attention from atrocities occurring under our noses. Its obsession
with multiculturalism drains enormous energy into fights over
frivolous resolutions. Its refusal to judge between democracies and
dictatorships empowers demagogues to repress and murder their own
citizens. The U.N.'s quixotic vision of a "parliament of humanity"
blithely ignores the tragic realities of human nature.
This is the problem with utopians: They pretend that the world is
as they wish it were, not as it actually is. A dose of moral
realism - informed by conscience, common sense, and religious
conviction - seems to be in order. Politically speaking, that means
allowing for the possibility of unilateral action by the United
States or joint action by a democratic coalition of the
At least on the issue of human rights, moral realism now means a
willingness to work largely outside the U.N. system. Too many
political leaders are too trusting in paper promises, too enamored
with soft talk and sweet reason. They don't spend enough time
actually hearing from the victims of tyranny and terror. Christian
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, warning about the brutalities of Nazi
Germany, fiercely criticized the impulse to ignore or appease
aggressors. "When the mind is not confused by utopian illusions,"
he wrote in 1941, "it is not difficult to recognize genuine
achievements of justice and to feel under obligation to defend them
against the threats of tyranny and the negation of justice."
At this hour of judgment for the United Nations, Niebuhr's insight
seems especially poignant. A sense of our moral obligations to
others depends on minds that are clear. The sooner the fog of
illusions is lifted, the better.
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). He served as
a member of the Congressional Task Force on the United