The preamble to the
Charter of the United Nations affirms a belief in "fundamental
human rights" and a universal obligation to uphold "the dignity and
worth of the human person." It is therefore an especially tragic
development that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the premier
U.N. body devoted to promoting human rights, has effectively
abandoned that bedrock moral vision. It is now a widely recognized
fact that repressive and brutal governments seek membership on
the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to escape scrutiny and
censure. The result is that the annual deliberations
in Geneva trivialize the worst violations of human dignity and
politicize what should be the collective moral judgment of
For example, two years
ago, a newspaper headline in Khartoum, Sudan, declared that the
regime's "human rights file was closed forever." This came on the
heels of a vote by the Commission on Human Rights to remove Sudan
from a list of countries requiring special monitoring. The
commission reached the nadir of its corruption last year, when the
Sudanese government-repeatedly accused of gross human rights abuses
in Darfur-was re-elected as a commission member in good standing.
Earlier this year in Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told
delegates to the commission that their work had become dangerously
compromised: "We have reached a point at which the Commission's
declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of
the United Nations system as a whole, and where piecemeal reforms
will not be enough."
Secretary-General's proposed reform of the Commission on Human
Rights- making it a permanent standing body elected by a two-thirds
majority of the General Assembly-is exactly the kind of piecemeal
measure against which he warned. It will not prevent the
nomination of oppressive states to the commission. It will not
produce U.N. resolutions that consistently name and shame the most
egregious human rights violators. In short, it will not help those
who are caught in the grip of brutal regimes or renegade
The United States-the
world's most effective defender of human rights-must take a strong
leadership role on behalf of the core principles enumerated in
the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. To best achieve that goal, the U.S. should seek to abolish
the U.N. Human Rights Commission, form a new U.S. Commission on
Human Rights to focus on preventing genocide and gross human rights
abuses, and promote an alliance of democratic states to advance the
cause of human rights. America should be willing to work with
international organizations, including the U.N., that are genuinely
committed to promoting human dignity. But the United States should
not lend its credibility to organizations that subvert the cause of
human rights and democratic freedom.
A Failed Model for
Secretary-General Annan asked a panel of 16 "eminent and
experienced" people to suggest ways in which the United Nations
could be reformed. The Secretary-General's High-level Panel on
Threats, Challenges and Change issued its report a year later. The
panel blandly admitted to being "concerned" about the "eroding
credibility and professionalism" of the U.N. Commission on Human
Rights and that the issue of membership had become a source of
international debate. Then the panel reached the astonishing
conclusion that proposals for membership criteria have little
chance of changing the corrupted dynamic at the commission:
"Rather, we recommend that the membership of the Commission on
Human Rights be expanded to universal membership."
Under this scheme, any
country with U.N. membership-regardless of its record of human
rights violations-should be allowed to serve on the
commission. In other words, the panel proposed to
preserve the status quo.
Mr. Annan unveiled his
reform proposal in March 2005. It departs in style, but not in
substance, from the panel report. He proposes that the Commission
on Human Rights be replaced by a standing Human Rights Council. It
would be a smaller body elected directly by a two-thirds majority
of the General Assembly. Mr. Annan offers no criteria for
membership on the proposed council and makes no
suggestions as to how states with notoriously bad human rights
records might be kept off or thrown off the new body. His proposal
fails to offer any assurance that a newly constituted Human Rights
Council would function more effectively than the corrupted
Commission on Human Rights.
Mr. Annan's vision for
reform refuses to confront the realities of a U.N. system that
institutionalizes a badly compromised approach to human rights
promotion. Any true reform must confront the following
Reality #1: There will
be no agreement about criteria for membership on a new U.N. Human
Earlier this year, the
European Parliament passed a resolution calling on its member
states to "request" that candidates for membership on the
Commission on Human Rights must have ratified "core human rights
treaties" and "complied with their reporting obligations." Under
his reform plan for a new Human Rights Council, the
Secretary-General urges that "those elected to the
Council should undertake to abide by the highest human rights
These are aspirations
without a concrete means of becoming a reality. Most U.N. experts
do not believe that it is possible to impose any meaningful
criteria for membership (except perhaps a rule barring states under
U.N. Security Council sanction). Even if the "regional bloc" system
of voting is abolished- another big if-powerful nations would still
bribe or bully reluctant governments for their support.
thinking has become deeply ingrained in U.N. member states and
would not be easily overturned. Supermajority votes by the
General Assembly-a 191-member body consisting of barely 88
fully free nations-could not be counted on to thwart the election
of rogue regimes. Indeed, it is quite conceivable that the United
States would not be elected to a new Human Rights Council.
Reality #2: Power
politics will continue to discredit the council's human rights
non-democratic states equal voting power with democracies, the U.N.
system ensures that the cause of human rights will be grossly
manipulated. For example, Third World governments have little
incentive to push democratic ideals at the expense of economic
interests or their regional or non-aligned identity. This helps to
explain why, in 2004, even African democracies refused to strongly
condemn ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Sudan. It also explains why
others defer to China when Beijing maneuvers to block
resolutions criticizing its own policies of political and
religious repression. Even some European governments seem less
interested in promoting human rights than in promoting the European
Union to offset American power.
bid to let the General Assembly determine commission membership
will not change this corrupted dynamic. We already know how that
body deals with human rights atrocities-it is called the Third
Committee of the General Assembly, the same committee that voted in
November 2004 to take "no action" on behalf of the victims of
Darfur. "It is hard to change the ethos of a limited membership
body that has become crudely political," writes Ruth Wedgwood,
Professor of International Law and Diplomacy at Johns Hopkins
University. "One may wonder whether the United Nations might gain
more traction offering technical assistance to countries that want
to change…rather than hosting a high-tempered shouting match
Reality #3: It is
unlikely that a human rights body embedded in the United Nations
could, by itself, overcome the moral confusion crippling the human
rights regimes in Geneva and New York.
One of the regrettable
results of the Non-Aligned Movement's dominance in the U.N. system
is the elevation of social and economic rights at the expense of
civil and political rights. It is hard to describe the spectacle in
Geneva of advocacy groups, many functioning as fronts for despotic
governments, that are allowed to consume the commission's attention
with frivolous, misleading, and false human rights
In addition, decades of
duplicity, vote trading, and a lack of accountability have created
a culture of indifference toward the most serious human rights
abusers. For example, in 2002, Syria was elected to a non-permanent
seat on the U.N. Security Council, despite being on the U.S.
State Department list of governments supporting terrorism. The
same year, Libya was elected to chair the Commission on Human
Rights by a vote of 33 to 3-a decision defended by Shashi Tharoor,
U.N. Undersecretary General for Communications and Public
Information: "You don't advance human rights by preaching only to
well-intentioned, this mindset of accommodation undermines the very
concept of transcendent moral norms enshrined in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. It fails to realize that human
rights are not advanced by giving repressive governments voting
privileges and a microphone at the United Nations.
It is no wonder that
neither the commission nor the General Assembly can agree on a
morally coherent definition of terrorism. Instead, the
commission has passed countless resolutions criticizing Israel
for its treatment of Palestinians, but not a single resolution
condemning Palestinian terrorist assaults against Israeli
civilians. "The discriminatory focus on Israel
detracts from the ability of the Commission to effectively address
other important matters within its mandate," according to a recent
American Bar Association report on U.N. reform, "and diminishes its
credibility as a global human rights policymaking body."
A Reformation in Human
All of this suggests
the need to completely rethink our commitment to human rights in
the context of the United Nations. The Secretary-General's report
insists on a new resolve to protect those whose rights are being
threatened: "Human rights must be incorporated into
decision-making and discussion throughout the work of the
Organization." At the same time, the Secretary-General
declares his intention to promote the spread of democracy
through a U.N. democracy fund: "The right to choose how they are
ruled, and who rules them, must be the birthright of all people,
and its universal achievement must be a central objective of
an Organization devoted to the cause of larger freedom."
Nowhere, however, does
the Secretary-General explicitly make human rights protection the
unique responsibility of democratic governments. Yet it is
democracies, with all their faults, that have the best record of
defending human rights. It is democracies that make the right to
life, liberty, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and
freedom of association their bedrock guarantees.
The task of defending
and promoting basic human rights must be reserved for the world's
democracies-not sidelined by its despots. The failure of various
U.N. agencies and organizations, which are always a mix of free and
un-free nations, makes this conclusion unavoidable. The U.N.'s
ethos of consensus and multiculturalism, though useful in other
contexts, is completely incompatible with the goal of exposing
human rights abusers and protecting innocent people.
There is still hope
that the United Nations might reform the Commission on Human Rights
in a way that reflects the founding ideals of the organization.
Yet, unless such reform occurs, much of the task of identifying and
working to prevent genocide and gross human rights abuses must
occur outside of the United Nations.
To defend and promote
human rights, the Bush Administration and Congress should
Agree with the U.N.
Secretary-General that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights must be
abolished. The original Commission
on Human Rights, led by Eleanor Roosevelt and dominated by
world-renowned defenders of human rights, was able to produce the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not so today. The
commission's lamentable record of human rights hypocrisy, corrupted
system of member states, stubborn resistance to real reform, and
other factors make abolishing the commission essential. As the
Secretary-General has admitted, its failure is tarnishing the
reputation of the entire United Nations.
Reject any U.N.
proposal to reconstitute a human rights body that would have its
membership determined by a General Assembly vote.
The U.N. General
Assembly has demonstrated that it cannot achieve moral clarity
on the most fundamental questions. Whether the issue is
anti-Semitism, the definition of terrorism, the virtues of
democracy, or the reality of genocide, the General Assembly cannot
reach consensus. When it comes to human rights, its
political and ideological diversity is a source of weakness, not
strength. The General Assembly cannot be relied upon, without
some other mechanism, to establish a Human Rights Council that
would achieve the U.N.'s stated goal of exposing human rights
abusers and helping to protect innocent people.
Establish a new U.S.
Commission on Human Rights, led by an independent human rights
commissioner appointed by the President, and direct the commission
to focus on preventing genocide and gross human rights
abuses. A U.S. Human Rights
Commissioner, drawn either from government or from the private
sector, would have a clear record as a champion of basic political
and civil liberties. The commissioner would head a permanent and
independent advisory body that would meet regularly throughout the
year and in special session as needed.
The U.S. Commission on
Human Rights could be modeled on the U.S. Commission on
International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent
body that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy
recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
Like the USCIRF, a new U.S. Commission on Human Rights would draw
on a diverse pool of experts in human rights issues.
The mission of the U.S.
Human Rights Commissioner and the Commission on Human Rights
must be clearly defined in order to focus attention on the most
serious violations of basic political and civil liberties, such as
those contained in Articles 3, 4, 5, 6, and 9 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. The commissioner should
work closely with the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and
with relevant non-governmental organizations, secular and
religious, in identifying the most troublesome situations around
the world. He should be given direct access to the U.N. High
Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.N. Special Adviser on the
Prevention of Genocide.
Mobilize a "Democracy
Caucus," working inside and outside the United Nations, to promote
human rights and democratic freedoms. Congress approved
legislation in December 2004 to establish a Democracy Caucus
within the United Nations. Its membership is to be drawn from the
Community of Democracies, founded in 2000 at an international
conference in Warsaw. However, it is unclear whether or not the
Community of Democracies will be limited to fully free and
democratic governments and how aggressively it will challenge human
Thus, the U.S.
Ambassador to the United Nations and the proposed U.S. Human Rights
Commissioner should take the lead in building alliances with
democratic states genuinely committed to upholding the highest
standards and protections for human rights. They could begin by
encouraging other governments in the existing Democracy Caucus
to establish human rights commissioners and advisory
Strengthen the work of
the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of
the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The High Commissioner
is the principal U.N. official responsible for human rights
and is accountable to the Secretary-General. Yet his office is not
nearly as effective as it could be. Human rights advocates complain
that the commissioner lacks a serious field presence in many
trouble spots around the world. Moreover, the commissioner rarely
appears before the Security Council to report on country-specific
situations. Although the 2004 panel report recommends that the High
Commissioner prepare an annual report on the human rights situation
worldwide, his office lacks the resources for that
In 2004, the U.N.
established the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of
Genocide. The Special Adviser's task is to collect information
on "massive and serious violations of human rights" and act as an
early-warning mechanism for the Secretary-General. Yet his office
also lacks resources, having only a half-time director and two
The Bush Administration
and Congress should insist that the High Commissioner concentrate
exclusively on the most serious human rights abuses and have the
authority to report directly to the U.N. Security Council. Congress
should support increased funding for the U.N. Special Adviser on
the Prevention of Genocide. No new funds need be appropriated: The
money saved by either eliminating or reorganizing the existing
Commission on Human Rights should be sufficient. The U.N.
Special Adviser's position should be full-time, and he also should
have the authority to report directly to the Security Council.
U.N. human rights offices should work closely together and meet
regularly with the proposed U.S. Human Rights Commissioner and his
counterparts in other democratic nations.
Strengthen the role of
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) committed to exposing
gross human rights abuses and protecting individuals at
risk. To date, the greatest
pressure for effective action to halt the violence in Darfur has
come from the institutions of civil society-namely, independent
human rights organizations-not from any U.N. officers, agencies, or
commissions. NGOs increasingly serve as the eyes
and ears of the international community in identifying human
rights abuses. Groups devoted to monitoring abuses dispatch field
officers around the globe and file detailed reports. Others,
especially faith-based organizations, focus on delivering
humanitarian assistance to refugees and other at-risk
populations. Because of their religious commitment to helping
those in greatest need, they often become aware of violent or
potentially violent situations long before U.N. investigators.
A U.N. report released
in June 2004 argued that "effective engagement with civil society
and other constituencies is no longer an option-it is a necessity
in order for the United Nations to meet its objectives and remain
relevant in the twenty-first century." Whether or not U.N.
leaders heed that advice, the United States should take the lead in
building strong bridges between its human rights apparatus and
civil society organizations in the trenches of human rights
Because of the
politicized nature of U.N. organizations-such as the
Commission on Human Rights and the Third Committee-reputable NGOs
may be denied access or find their voice drowned out by the
process. In contrast, the proposed U.S. Commission
on Human Rights should establish an official liaison with NGOs,
based on a record of working effectively in trouble spots
around the world.
The original Commission
on Human Rights set a high standard with its Universal Declaration
of Human Rights-a document that has inspired scores of treaties,
conventions, and human rights organizations. The single most
important reason why the original commission got off to such a
strong start was the prestige and moral suasion of the United
States. Charles Malik, the Lebanese delegate to the commission
and a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
The American spirit of
freedom, tolerance, largeness of heart, and profound respect for
individual human beings permeated and suffused our atmosphere all
It was an intangible
thing, but a most real thing all the same. We imbibed this
spirit…above all in dealing with and talking to American men
and women of every stripe and on every social level.
I cannot imagine a
document on human rights and fundamental freedoms of the importance
and breadth of our declaration arising in our age without the
sustaining support of this spiritual background. I cannot imagine
the declaration coming to birth under the aegis of any other
culture emerging dominant after the Second World War.
If we want to extend
and defend the cause of human rights, and if we hope to protect
those individuals who are most vulnerable to persecution and
violence, we should turn to those democracies animated by that same
spirit of freedom, tolerance, largeness of heart, and profound
respect for individual human beings-beginning with the United
Loconte is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion
and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation. He served as an
expert on the Congressional Task Force on the United Nations and
helped to produce its 2005 report, American Interests and U.N.
Reform. This paper is based on his testimony before the
Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International
Operations, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House
of Representatives, April 19, 2005.
The 2004 report of
the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and
Change made this astonishing admission: "We are concerned that in
recent years States have sought membership of the Commission not to
strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism
or to criticize others. The Commission cannot be credible if it is
seen to be maintaining double standards in addressing human rights
concerns." United Nations, High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges
and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility,
2004, p. 89, at www.un.org/secureworld/ report2.pdf
(September 7, 2005).
According to 2005
Freedom House rankings, at least 14 states of the 53 nations (26
percent) that are members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights
are not free. Six states on the commission-China, Cuba, Eritrea,
Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe-received the worst numerical
rating for freedom. See Aili Piano and Arch Puddington, eds.,
Freedom in the World 2005: The Annual Survey of Political Rights
and Civil Liberties (Washington, D.C.: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers and Freedom House, Inc., 2005).
Cited in editorial,
"Justifying Abuse," The Washington Post, April 18, 2003, p.
A20. The Post went on to argue: "If the commission is
going to continue to act against the interests of the world's weak
and persecuted, we ought not to lend it any further
The most recent
U.N. report on the violence in Darfur was released on February 1,
2005. It declined to label the killings as "genocide" but agreed
that atrocities have taken place on a widespread and systematic
basis. See Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to
the United Nations Secretary-General, January 25, 2005, at
www.ohchr.org/english/docs/darfurreport.doc (September 7,
Secretary-General, "Secretary-General's Address to the Commission
on Human Rights," April 7, 2005, at www.un.org/
apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=1388 (September 9, 2005).
A More Secure World, p. 89.
Secretary-General, "In Larger Freedom: Towards Development,
Security and Human Rights for All," March 21, 2005, at
www.un.org/largerfreedom/contents.htm (September 7,
Resolution on the EU's Priorities and Recommendations for the 61st
Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva (14 March
to 22 April 2005), February 24, 2005, at
(September 7, 2005).
Secretary-General, "In Larger Freedom."
About 115 nations
make up the Non-Aligned Movement, making it nearly a two-thirds
bloc within the United Nations. Among the non-aligned states, the
22-nation Arab League forms a decisive coalition within the
56-nation Islamic Conference.
This is the
conclusion of U.N. specialists such as Joshua Muravchik of the
American Enterprise Institute, pointing to the French proposal that
the Bosnian crisis be addressed by the Western European Union (a
paper organization) rather than by NATO. See Joshua Muravchik, "The
U.N. on the Loose," Commentary, July-August 2002.
"The Evident Virtues (and Vices) of the United Nations," paper
presented at Aspen Institute conference, "U.S.-Russia-Europe:
Cooperative Efforts," August 21-27, 2004, at
(September 7, 2005).
"Human Rights and Wrongs," The Weekly Standard, March 22,
About 30 percent
of the commission's adopted resolutions condemning specific states
are directed at Israel. See Ann Bayefsky, "Undiplomatic
Imbalance: The Anti-Semitism of the U.N. Is a Problem for More Than
Just Israel," National Review Online, December 13, 2004, at
(September 9, 2005).
Association, report from the Task Force on Reform of the United
Nations Commission on Human Rights, February 23,
Secretary-General, "In Larger Freedom," p. 37.
The U.N.'s 2001
conference against racism in Durban turned into such a tirade
against Israel that Secretary of State Colin Powell withdrew the
U.S. delegation. In addition, although the U.N. Security Council
condemned the 2004 terrorist assault by Chechen separatists at a
school in Beslan, Russia, the United Nations has yet to define
terrorism or produce a comprehensive convention condemning
"Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."
Article 4: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude;
slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their
forms." Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Article 6:
"Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person
before the law." Article 9: "No one shall be subject to arbitrary
arrest, detention or exile." See the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, at www.un.org/Overview/rights.html (September
coalition of human rights and pro-democracy organizations sent a
letter on March 17, 2005, to "Foreign Ministers of the Community of
Democracy Convening Group," urging the U.N. Democracy Caucus to
insist that some of the world's worst violations be "fully aired,
examined, and forthrightly censured" at the 61st session of the
U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The letter's signatories
included Emma Bonino, a member of the European Parliament; Louise
Kantrow, executive director of the International League for Human
Rights; and Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom
House. See www.democracycaucus.net.
For example, see a
September 24, 2004, letter sent by executive directors of several
human rights NGOs to members of the U.N. Security Council.
Signatories included William Schulz of Amnesty International USA,
Michael Posner of Human Rights First, Ken Roth of Human Rights
Watch, and Jennifer Windsor of Freedom House. The letter criticizes
U.N. Resolution 1564, adopted on September 18, 2004, because
it "does not contain adequate measures to bring security to
civilian populations in Darfur.… The Security Council should
act immediately under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to pass a
resolution endorsing a significantly increased presence of AU
personnel on the ground and providing them with a mandate to
protect civilians." See www.freedomhouse.org.
rights and humanitarian groups have been engaged in Sudan,
including the International Crisis Group, Doctors Without
Borders, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and World Vision.
InterAction.org, a trade association of about 165 NGOs, maintains
basic standards of professionalism.
Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations,
"We the Peoples: Civil Society, the United Nations and Global
Governance," June 11, 2004, at
www.un-ngls.org/Final%20report%20-%20HLP.doc (September 9,
Ibid., p. 52. The
report admits that the accreditation process for NGOs has drifted
away from the concept of merit and become too politicized: "[S]ince
the United Nations is the global institution that embodies the
values of free expression and assembly, it is inappropriate
that…government surmises about political motives should
determine who has access."
Malik was an Arab
Christian and an intellectual powerhouse who went on to serve as
president of the Economic and Social Council and chairman of the
Habib C. Malik,
ed., The Challenge of Human Rights: Charles Malik and the
Universal Declaration (Oxford: Charles Malik Foundation in
association with The Centre for Lebanese Studies, 2000), pp.