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Peer-to-Peer?

Kofi Annan is trying to "reform" the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. His plan will only make matters worse.

12:00 AM, Aug 29, 2005 • By DAVID A. SCHWARZ
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UN REFORM - ANOTHER GRAND ILLUSION?

THIS SEPTEMBER, the United Nation's 2005 World Summit will debate "an achievable set of proposals," submitted by Secretary General Kofi Annan, to reform the U.N.'s core functions in the areas of economic development, security, and the protection of human rights. The characterization of the reforms as "achievable" is ominous, given that most member states are not particularly interested in fundamental change at Turtle Bay. Worse, the proposed reforms--which include the expansion of the Security Council--may weaken the organization's ability to condemn aggression, or to intercede with peacekeeping forces to prevent another Rwanda or Sudan.

Take, for example, the proposed "reform" of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Once dubbed the "conscience of the United Nations," that Commission has become a cruel joke--a point even Annan concedes, albeit in guarded diplomatic parlance. To get the punch line, one need only consider the current composition of the Commission, which includes six nations on Freedom House's list of the ten most repressive regimes in the world.

ANNAN PROPOSES TO REPLACE the 53-member Commission with a smaller "Human Rights Council," akin in stature to the Security Council, or, if that won't fly, as a subsidiary of the General Assembly. In addition to being a "standing body," able "to meet regularly and at any time to deal with imminent crises and allow for timely and in-depth consideration of human rights issues," the Council would undertake a function not expressly accorded to the Commission: A "peer review" of the human rights practices of all U.N. member states.

The word "peer" usually connotes someone or something of equal worth, quality, or characteristics. In Annan's locution, however, "peer" countries need share only a single, least common denominator: basic territorial sovereignty. Indeed, Annan appears to contemplate no higher standard than that even for members of the new Human Rights Council itself. The "peer review" scrutiny he proposes will not be a test of admission to the Council. To the contrary, the same despotic regimes which populate the current Commission on Human Rights will be eligible for election to the successor Human Rights Council, where they will ever after sit in judgment on their democratic "peers"--while voting as a bloc to shade the scope and extent of any inquiry into their own domestic depredations.

THEN THERE IS THE PERENNIAL QUESTION concerning which human rights the Council should be monitoring. Annan proposes that the Council will "evaluate the fulfillment by all States of all their human rights obligations," with "equal attention" to the "entire spectrum of human rights," including such economic, social, and cultural rights as the "right to development." For decades, the asserted parity of economic goals and political and civil liberties has been a convenient way for despots to justify oppression in order to provide basic social services, or for third-world nations to demand massive redistribution of wealth from industrialized nations, under the guise of a "right to development."

Annan's peer review expressly codifies the moral equivalence between economic goals and political and civil rights. This should be deeply troubling to the U.S. delegation. For years, the United States has argued that any U.N. body charged with monitoring human rights should focus on the most egregious cases of abuse. Instead, the Commission has traditionally frittered away its energies and influence on items more appropriate to an aid conference, such as debt relief, "cultural rights," and the "right to education." Under Annan's prescription, the new Council would likely do the same.

UNDER ANNAN'S PROPOSAL the Council would retain some ability to "take action when serious human rights situations develop," but the only such "action" he specifies is the "option to adopt specific country resolutions" to address "urgent situations." That option, unfortunately, is one the Commission on Human Rights already enjoys. And it has generally been used in a highly selective manner, most often to single out Israel.

More typically, the only "action" taken by the Commission is a "no action" motion, a procedural gambit to block an up or down vote on country-specific resolutions. This year the Commission was unable to muster a majority of its members to condemn gross human-rights violations in North Korea. No resolution on Zimbabwe was offered, because it was clear that there weren't sufficient votes for a censure. Even when a truly "urgent" situation has arisen--such as the death and dispossession of millions in the Darfur region--the Commission has largely ducked the issue. Under Annan's proposal, country-specific resolutions in the new Council will likely suffer much the same fate.