Missed chance to right wrongs

Ted Lapkin

Behind the facade of reform, the UN gives a free kick to despots

The Australian – March 22, 2006


IT was a typical UN decision: a triumph of style over substance that aggravates the problem rather than improves it. Last week, the UN voted to abolish its scandal-scarred Commission on Human Rights. But the Human Rights Council created as an alternative constitutes a cure that is worse than the original disease.

The UNCHR was a blatant UN eyesore. Its ranks were stacked with the world’s worst tyrannies that turned the commission into a place where humanitarian abusers took refuge rather than responsibility. After all, what better way to avoid scrutiny on human rights issues than to control the agenda of the UN’s premier human rights body?

Even the most devoted UN apparatchik could not fail to be embarrassed by the election of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya to chair the Commission on Human Rights. The commission fell into further disrepute when its showcase World Conference Against Racism degenerated into an anti-Semitic extravaganza where Jews were subjected to verbal and physical violence.

The final UNCHR membership roll included paragons of inhumanity such as Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. These despotic regimes worked overtime to ensure that the practical immunity conferred by the old commission would endure in the new Human Rights Council. Yet substantial lip service had to be paid to camouflage such institutional sleight of hand. So while the Human Rights Council allows the de jure suspension of human rights abusers from its ranks, the devil is in the de facto details.

The tyrants who dominated the UNCHR fought tooth and nail to prevent the introduction of specific behavioural standards for membership in the fledgling council. Any such exclusion requires a two-thirds super-majority vote in the General Assembly, where mutual arse covering is the favourite pursuit of dictators.

Last November, the General Assembly could not even muster 50 per cent of its members to pass a toothless condemnation of Sudan over the Darfur genocide. There may not be honour among thieves but there is an alliance of convenience among the despots who rule the General Assembly through sheer numbers.

It is inconceivable that these autocrats would suspend one of their own from the Human Rights Council or anything else. Thus, behind the facade of reform, the UN has put in place a political placebo that allows its institutional dysfunction to fester beneath the surface. The seeds of corruption that infect the world body derive from an ethos of moral relativism that equates neutrality with righteousness. This philosophy of impartiality promotes an aversion to ethical value judgments that renders the UN unable to make any practical distinction between liberty and tyranny.

Within the corridors of the UN there is no difference in status between democratic governments that rule by the ballot and despotic juntas that rule by the bullet. Through the abdication of universal moral standards, the UN’s internal institutional logic compels the adoption of policies that reduce it to the status of global laughing-stock.

The result is a world body that cannot even define terrorism, much less address it. The General Assembly serves as a theatre of the absurd in which tyrants deflect attention from their crimes by lecturing free nations on political ethics. The UN pollutes itself through its assertion of parity between fascism and freedom. As long as it confers equal status on Robert Mugabe and John Howard alike, the UN will continue its slide into the abyss of irrelevance.

Yet deliverance may still be possible, but only if the democratic world has the courage to be cruel to be kind. The value-neutral attitude that pervades the UN must go and the body’s most unsavoury members must go before a disciplinary process with teeth.

The UN’s charter provides for the expulsion of nations that systematically violate its terms. But article six also contains a catch-22 that requires the approval of the Security Council and General Assembly before miscreants can be ejected. Of course, the Third World thugs who run the UN will never permit their diplomatic playground to be turned against them, at least not as things stand.

But what if Western democracies were to make their continued financial largesse contingent on a genuine cleansing of the Augean stable that the UN has become? One would think that even the most recalcitrant UN bureaucrats might baulk at the prospect of losing one-third of their annual budget.

The UN must learn to distinguish between slavery and sovereignty if it wishes to shed the taint of tolerance for tyranny. Only then will the world body be saved from its own excesses.

Ted Lapkin is director of policy analysis at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council in Melbourne.