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The United Nations

Any analysis of the United Nations’ human rights role must divide the institution into its two essential parts.  On the one hand are the Secretariat and its associated operational agencies, on the other hand is a series of conference halls where the nations of the world meet to address a broad range of issues.

Kofi Annan is clearly the most committed to advancing human rights of any secretary-general the organization has known. For example, through his personal interventions on Darfur (including at least sixteen statements on the situation in 2005), Annan struggled to keep attention focused on the ongoing crisis and to prompt further remedial action. His human rights work was aided by Louise Arbour, a strong and principled high commissioner for human rights, whose work to establish a monitoring mission in Nepal and to report on violence in Uzbekistan was particularly helpful.

Also in 2005, a new report on human security published by the University of British Columbia made a compelling case that international efforts to address conflicts are saving lives. Failures to address human rights crises naturally continued to capture headlines, but in many places, such as Liberia, where fighting has been curbed and successful elections were held, international intervention helped to end the killing and launch law-abiding democratic governments.  The rapid expansion of U.N. preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping missions suggests that a multilateral response to crises sometimes can overcome the leadership void among some of the most powerful U.N. members.  However, major-power leadership is likely to remain essential to make meaningful the U.N. summit’s endorsement of a “responsibility to protect” civilians at grave risk.

As for the United Nations as a governmental forum, the results were mixed at best.  On the positive side, it finally became accepted wisdom that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights had become a shameful embarrassment that discredits the entire organization.  With a large number of its fifty-three seats occupied by highly abusive governments, the Commission functioned less to advance human rights than to ensure paralysis, thereby shielding from criticism almost any government (other than Israel), no matter how abusive. 

Unfortunately, this growing consensus led to little more than a pronouncement that the Commission must be replaced by a more effective Human Rights Council.  As of late November, there was still no agreement on how that Council should be constituted.  Most important, much dispute remained about how to improve the quality of the Council’s membership.

Much of the problem with the Commission’s membership lay with the practice of allowing each region to dictate which governments would occupy its allocated seats without any input from the rest of the world.  Each region would typically nominate a “clean slate”—the same number of nominees as available seats—rendering moot the later U.N. election.  Because the composition of these slates was thus left to backroom deals, the human rights qualifications of the candidates often played little role in the nomination process.  Indeed, because highly abusive governments often placed more importance on avoiding condemnation by the Commission than did rights-respecting governments, they took the horse-trading more seriously and thus tended to prevail.

There are various possible solutions to end this race-to-the-bottom.  Most obvious would be to insist that each region nominate more candidates than its allocated slots—perhaps double the number—thus ensuring a real choice when elections occur.  Requiring a candidate-by-candidate vote—rather than a vote for an entire slate—would allow the rest of the nations of the world at least the possibility of voting down inappropriate candidates.  Requiring candidates seeking election to the Council to secure a two-thirds majority of U.N. member states would make it much less likely that the worst abusers could be elected.  Reserving a small number of “at large” seats, available on a first-come-first-served basis to any region that has successfully filled all of its allocated seats, would provide an incentive for upgrading further the quality of the candidates. 

The difficulty in resolving these issues and moving forward with creation of a new Human Rights Council left the embarrassing prospect that the Commission, an institution now utterly discredited, might meet again in March and April—not simply to oversee a transfer of responsibilities and disband, but to conduct regular business.  Such a collective failure of political will would only provide new ammunition to critics of the United Nations. 

The major summit of world leaders convened at the United Nations in September to commemorate the organization’s 60th anniversary was, in many respects, a disappointment.  Its most important contribution was giving an official imprimatur to the Canadian-sponsored concept of a “responsibility to protect” people at risk of large-scale loss of life, even though much work remains to implement that commitment, such as creation of a quick-reaction stand-by force.  In tacit endorsement of Kofi Annan’s vision that human rights should join security and development as one of three pillars of the U.N. system, the summit also pledged to greatly increase the budget of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Efforts to condemn terrorism in all of its forms ran aground on perennial attempts by some to justify deliberate attacks on civilians in cases of national liberation or fights against occupation, and on efforts of many Western governments to exempt the concept of state-sponsored terrorism. 

John Bolton, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, played a particularly unhelpful role during the summit negotiations.  As the negotiations were concluding, the newly arrived ambassador introduced hundreds of last-minute amendments including many designed to exempt the United States from any binding obligations.  The extremism of his interventions opened the door for other governments to indulge their worst tendencies, and seemingly agreed upon compromises, including on many aspects of the Human Rights Council, came undone. 

Much blame fell as well on the various obstructionist governments, such as Cuba, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Pakistan, Russia, and Venezuela, who profited from the disarray to undermine any initiative that might improve enforcement of human rights standards. 

The summit also failed to agree on any plan to expand the U.N. Security Council, including by adding some number of new permanent seats to reflect shifts in power since the 1940s.  The competition for those permanent seats proved particularly counterproductive for human rights enforcement, since some of the leading contenders—Germany, Japan, Nigeria, South Africa—were eager not to do or say anything that might offend potential supporters.  South Africa’s and Nigeria’s reluctance to make enemies had a notably deleterious effect on the African Union’s human rights activities.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006