Reforming the UN Commission on Human Rights: From the Wildly Aburd to Just Absurd

The American Enterprise Online*, March 10, 2006

The United States and the United Nations are engaged in a tussle before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights begins its annual session in Geneva next week. As U.S Ambassador John Bolton threatens to vote against a watered down proposal to reform the discredited Commission, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has told reporters that he was “chagrined about the U.S. position.”

While U.N. bureaucratic displeasure at the United States is nothing new, the latest controversy over the Commission on Human Rights calls into question the validity of the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for U.N. reform.

The absurdities of the current Commission are well known. Though proclaiming universal human rights principles, it has harbored egregious human rights violators such as Cuba, China, Libya, Zimbabwe, and the Sudan. At a minimum, the Administration has argued, nations that commit crimes against humanity and systematically oppress political and economic freedoms should be barred from Commission membership.

Unfortunately, this was too much for the U.N. system to stomach. The world body recently put forth a proposal to replace the 53-member Commission on Human Rights with a 47-member Human Rights Council elected by majority vote in the General Assembly. The United States insists that under this arrangement, repressive regimes will continue to be elected to the Council. Washington has lobbied instead for a permanent Council consisting of 30 members chosen primarily for their human rights record via a two thirds vote in the General Assembly.

The U.S. position may reflect reluctance to compromise on human rights, but this display of diplomatic backbone is wasted on a futile venture. Though the General Assembly President has noted that “[t]he human rights dimension is the soul of the United Nations,” this dimension is also a very toothless one. The Security Council can authorize the use of force and sanctions to safeguard international peace. Specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization can deliver much needed medical expertise and services. The U.N. human rights apparatus, unfortunately, can only grandstand. It condemns, chastises, and censures countries that abuse their citizens but can do little more.

The travesty at the Commission on Human Rights currently is that it fails even the test of grandstanding. But the Bush administration is merely seeking to create a Council that grandstands more sensibly. One can see a glimpse of the Council the United States wishes to create in some of the more plausible activities undertaken by the Commission. In 2005, the Commission adopted a U.S.-cosponsored resolution on “democracy and the rule of law,” which articulated democracy’s attributes and its power to ensure freedom and human rights. In 2003, the Commission adopted a resolution advocating “the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” reaffirming the importance of the freedom of speech and the free flow of information in facilitating human rights.

These resolutions, though perfectly sensible, reveal the inherent limitations of reform at the Commission. Condemnation, chastisement, and censure of abominable behavior, even if truthful, nevertheless remain idle talk and grandstanding. The censurer no doubt derives self-righteous pleasure from denouncing heinous acts at a world body, but the fact that a U.N. entity has spoken does nothing to persuade corrupt authoritarian regimes like China to democratize or dictatorships like North Korea to abandon the suppression of free speech.

More importantly, the United States should be careful what it wishes for. A reformed, permanent council consisting of states that respect human rights will not necessarily cease to issue criticisms and edicts against this country. There is no assurance that democracies in Europe, sitting on a permanent Council, will restrain themselves from chastising U.S. practices—such as the death penalty and the ban on gay marriage—that offend their sensibilities.

The Bush administration seems to have forgotten that even countries with exemplary human rights records have wielded their influence at the U.N. to vehemently thwart and decry U.S. objectives. France did not hesitate to utilize the Security Council to condemn the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as “illegal.” Why should it, or other like-minded countries, resist the temptation to condemn future U.S. action on a permanent Council of Human Rights? When that occurs, the United States will find itself in the awkward position of having to discredit pronouncements from a forum it has helped to make more credible.

Grandstanding about human rights in a multilateral forum is tricky business. Member states are not obligated to agree, nor are they obligated to leave politics at the doors. In pursuing U.N. reform, the Administration is right to question many of the established absurdities of U.N. life. But it should also question its faith in the virtues of multilateral grandstanding.

*The American Enterprise was the flagship publication of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. In 2006, the magazine was relaunched as The American.

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