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Rescue Mission

Kofi Annan's United Nations appeal.

11:00 PM, Mar 24, 2005 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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Critics also point to the U.N.'s failure to prevent human-rights atrocities in states such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where the veto power of Security Council members created inertia and cowardice. In Sudan, an Islamic government stands accused of ongoing genocide--with no clear sign that the U.N. will intervene. Without a hint of irony, Annan asked the General Assembly: "As to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other such crimes against humanity, are they not also threats to international peace and security, against which humanity should be able to look to the Security Council for protection?"

Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, bristles at the suggestion. The problem, she says, is the fundamental structure of the Security Council and the absence of an international military to enforce its decisions. "There's nothing he has to say here that reassures me that the U.N. could be effective either dealing with imminent threats or with genocide," she says. "As long as you maintain veto power and permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, the idea that it could intervene effectively is preposterous."

Back in 1945, at the international conference in San Francisco that created the United Nations, Charles Malik, the Lebanese delegate and an Arab Christian, worried about the impulse to mistake conventions for moral convictions. "There is a peace that only cloaks terrible inner conflicts," he wrote at the time. "And there is a security that is utterly insecure." Perhaps nowhere else is the gulf between form and substance deeper than in the discredited Human Rights Commission.

Annan now admits what everyone involved in human-rights advocacy has long known: The world's rogue regimes seek membership on the Commission to block international scrutiny and censure. According to Freedom House, more than half of the 53-member states are unfree or only partly free. Six countries on the Commission get the lowest possible rating for freedom: China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan (which was reelected last year even as new charges of ethnic cleansing were raised by U.N. investigators).

Annan's remedy: Shrink the size of the Commission and elect delegates by a two-thirds majority vote of all U.N. members. That might possibly end the "regional bloc" system, which allows dictatorships like China to intimidate other states into getting nominated. "A two-thirds vote might give democratic states the power to block bad nations," says Mark Lagon, of the State Department's Bureau of International Organizations. "We think this is moving in the right direction." Joanna Weschler, UN representative for Human Rights Watch, sees an admission that reform is desperately needed: "This indicates a belief that the Commission is beyond repair."

It might also suggest, however, that UN officials have no intention of challenging the culture of hypocrisy that dominates the institution's human rights agenda. Many weak democracies in Africa, for example, could still succumb to pressure for vote-trading. Perhaps more important, Annan and his U.N. colleagues resist the idea of setting a high moral bar for membership on the Commission, a goal long advanced by human-rights groups. "Establishing criteria for membership on the Commission and for a reformed Human Rights Council is vital for credibility," says Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for Freedom House. "It's the only way to reclaim the mandate of the U.N.'s primary human rights body, namely to spotlight the world's most egregious human rights abusers."

To some it all seems like a tragic departure from the lofty ideals expressed in the U.N. Charter about affirming and defending the "dignity and worth of the human person." To others, another U.N. report just doesn't have much salience amid the tough political and social realities on the ground. As an Iraqi diplomat said to me after Annan's speech: "We have other things that keep us up at night other than U.N. reform."

Joseph Loconte is a fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).