Sixty years ago, when the United Nations was debating the creation of an international statement on human rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, then serving as head of the Human Rights Commission, delivered a caustic speech at the Sorbonne. "We must not be deluded by the efforts of the forces of reaction to prostitute the great words of our free tradition and thereby to confuse the struggle," she said. "Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world, which we must not allow to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship."
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document affirming the "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights" of all people. While U.N. diplomats laud their human-rights achievements, the world's dictators and terrorists are no doubt celebrating the prostitution of human rights--often at the encouragement of U.N. policies and protocols.
It should be said that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable statement: an attempt to achieve a moral consensus about the demands of human dignity following a world war that obliterated the hopes and lives of millions. The Universal Declaration has been a midwife to dozens of international treaties and covenants. It is cited by scores of domestic constitutions. Human rights organizations around the world look to the document as their Magna Carta.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Mrs. Roosevelt's fear about the perversion of human rights is on full display in the international community. More than half of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, the principal U.N. body charged with promoting human rights, fail to uphold basic democratic freedoms in their own countries. Using the canards of anti-colonialism and anti-Americanism, they block resolutions that might embarrass them on the world stage. Thus, some of the most egregious offenders of human rights--including China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe--typically evade censure. Last week, for example, the Human Rights Council approved a resolution praising the Kinshasa government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose military stands accused of mass rape and murder.
Meanwhile, U.N. preparations for a world conference against racism, a follow-up to a controversial 2001 event in Durban, carry the familiar stigmata of moral cynicism. The U.N. planning committee includes nations such as Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and Cuba. What exactly can Iran--which defends policies that criminalize and brutalize its gay community--teach the world about combating racism? Safely inoculated against self-examination, the U.N. committee has produced a draft declaration suggesting that the United States, Western Europe and other liberal democracies are discriminatory against Islam and fundamentally racist.
Strident anti-Israel criticism, of course, remains the norm. Last month the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, called for a global campaign of "boycott, divestment, and sanctions" against Israel for its policies in the Occupied Territories. There was no mention in Brockmann's speech of terrorist attacks against Israel, the wretched fate of political prisoners in the Arab world, or the absence of democratic freedoms in the Middle East.
How did we arrive at this dismal state of affairs? The problem is not simply that human rights have become grossly politicized. The problem is that rights have been profoundly secularized--and severed from their deepest moral foundation, the concept of man as the imago Dei, the image of God.
Under the banner of "multiculturalism," the United Nations has produced a torrent of treaties and conventions, with ever-expanding categories of rights. In the process, the Western idea of rights as transcendent claims against a coercive state has been greatly weakened. Human rights are on the same footing as social benefits and economic aspirations. Thus, we have the spectacle of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development inviting North Korea--a regime that sustains itself by starving its people--to become a member in good standing. We have nations such as Iran claiming an "inalienable right" to nuclear technology, language that in fact appears in Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Where is Thomas Jefferson when you need him? When human rights are no longer considered the gift of nature and nature's God, human dignity is made more vulnerable to assault. When repressive regimes are rewarded with membership and voting privileges in U.N. bodies, the entire human rights project is debased. The political result is that fundamental rights--the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion--become negotiable. In the end, they become disposable.
A few years ago I attended the Geneva session of the Human Rights Council, just as the extent of the ethnic cleansing in Darfur was first being widely reported. Civilians were being killed by the thousands; entire villages were being burned to the ground. Yet U.N. diplomats said almost nothing about the unfolding human-rights disaster. (China, a member of the Council with oil interests in Sudan, blocked any critical resolutions.) Instead, I heard officials from dictatorial states, cheered on by left-wing activists, denounce the United States for its international "campaign" against human rights. The piece de resistance was a speech by an ex-convict from Alaska, who complained that his "human rights" had been grossly violated: U.S. prison officials had cut his hair too short.
For years I've gotten my hair cut by Mario, a veteran Italian barber in Washington, D.C. If, contrary to all experience, Mario were to give me a lousy haircut, I might say, "Mario, che cosa hai fatto qui?" (What did you do here?). We'd probably shrug it off and that would be the end of it. But thanks to the U.N.'s culture of hypocrisy, bad haircuts can get you a microphone and an international audience.
Sixty years ago, when the death camps still cast a shadow over Europe, world leaders were more sober about the great threats to human freedom. They proclaimed that "contempt for human rights" had produced acts of barbarism that "have outraged the conscience of mankind." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, indeed, the United Nations itself, were a response to those acts. The bitter irony is that another form of contempt for human dignity has appeared--and found safe harbor in the multicultural halls of New York and Geneva.
Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. His latest book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.