May 14, 2007

May 14, 2007 | Commentary on Africa

Where Jackals Play Watchdog

The U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development last week elected Zimbabwe as its chair. It's obscene: The panel is supposed to facilitate economic growth as well as environmental integrity - while Zimbabwe's government has transformed Africa's breadbasket into Africa's basket case due to gross economic mismanagement.

And this week at the U.N.'s theater of the absurd, the Human Rights Council is likely to choose as its chair Belarus - one of the world's most repressive states.

The United Nations has a long record of disappointing - but what's next? One can only imagine. . . . As such, it might be a good time to reconsider the U.S. contributions to these disgraceful U.N. bodies.

First, let's look at the U.N.'s lunacy on Zimbabwe.

The former British colony was once an outstanding example of African development. But then dictator Robert Mugabe began to fear losing his grip on political power - setting out to destroy domestic threats to his rule through land seizures and redistribution. The result? The once-prosperous country's economy has shrunk 40 percent since 2000 - with no end in sight. Years of consecutive negative growth and inflation (at over 2,000 percent annually) are the world's highest; 80 percent of the populace is unemployed and/or lives below the poverty line.

And a nation that used to be Africa's prime food exporter now faces widespread hunger. As many as 4 million have left the country, mostly for South Africa, putting Zimbabwe on par with Sudan's Darfur in refugee terms.

Life expectancy has plummeted - where once the average newborn would live into his or her 60s, that infant now survives only to his or her 30s. A population that should be 18 to 20 million is just 11 million - with a reported 1.3 million orphans.

Genocide? Depends on your definition. But it seems obvious that Zimbabwe is the last country you'd want to make chair of any body that has anything to do with economic development.

Of course, such logic carries little weight at the United Nations, which regularly awards positions and chairs based on quotas or a country's influence in Turtle Bay rather than how members act and perform in the real world.

What about Belarus, set to lead the U.N.'s Human Rights Council?

Well, the country is so repressive that a coalition of 40 top human-rights groups have called on the United Nations to keep it off the human-rights panel altogether.

They'll probably fail - the U.N. quota system gives Eastern Europe two seats, and the only other candidate is Slovenia. A majority of U.N. member states would have to take an unprecedented moral stand to reject Belarus. Most states just don't care - or have horse-traded their votes for Belarus' support on issues they do care about.

But the coalition is still right on the merits: The government of Belarus' president, Alexander Lukashenko, is "supremely unfit" to help monitor human rights around the globe. The State Department's annual human-rights report called Belarus' record "poor."

And Freedom House warns that Lukashenko's dictatorial rule is getting nastier - moving to "eradicate the remaining spheres of political and social autonomy that could potentially challenge Lukashenko's aspirations for unlimited and lifelong rule."

This sort of insanity is same-old, same-old for the United Nations: Libya was elected chair of the old Commission on Human Rights in 2003; Iran got named vice-chair of the Disarmament Commission, a body charged with preventing nuclear proliferation, last year - and was re-elected last month.

What to do?

Well, the United States can refuse to play along. Because of past U.N. human-rights farces, we've already declined to take a seat on the Council. We could resign the one we have on the development panel.

Or we could refuse to pay. We gave $439 million to the regular U.N. budget last year; some $4 million of that went to the Human Rights Council. As a statement of principle, we could deduct that amount from what we fork over next year. . . .

But Congress would have to actively choose to withhold that portion of our U.N. dues - which means convincing a lot of congressional Democrats to send a "tough" message to the United Nations. Realistically, unless U.S. human-rights groups (and the relevant activists on sustainable development) come out strongly in favor of the move, it won't happen.

Which means that the United States will wind up conferring legitimacy on rogue regimes - and more moral squalor at Turtle Bay.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Africa

First appeared in The New York Post