Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Irrelevance of the UN and the Source of International Legitimacy

Julian Ku over at Opinio Juris is pointing out that efforts to reform and improve the UN Human Right Commission/Council are doomed to fail, as the bill, which is too weak for the tastes of the US and anyone who claims to care about human rights, will be voted on by the General Assembly and not subject to the Security Council veto. That means that the US will not be able to block the UN from enacting meaningless window-dressing changes that may give the air, but not the substance, of reform to the body that has seen fit to seat Sudan on a human rights commission.

Why does this matter? Because the UN has a veneer of international legitimacy; that is what the UN does is seen by much of the world as legitimate. Why? I promised in an earlier post to discuss the sources of international legitimacy; unfortunately, I don't have time to do this question justice now (Tuesdays and Thursdays are my busy teaching days -- 3 classes). But, I do want to touch on this subject now. There are two sources from which an action can gain legitimacy: adhere to an ideal or adherence to a process. The example of the UN human rights commission reform this case makes the point for me. Is the human rights commission legitimate because it will be created through the quasi-democratic process of the General Assembly, even if it fails to uphold any meaningful standards of human rights? Or, should the new body be judged according to how well it protects and promotes the protection of human rights? Unfortunately, far too many people choose the former, even if they're not willing to admit it to themselves. The UN does not in any way represent a consensus of values or ideals; it represents the triumph of procedural process over everything. That is, what the UN does it legitimate so long as it follows its own institutional procedural rules. So, the new commission will bear the imprimatur of international law and rectitude, even as it continues to accomplish nothing and allow gross violators of human rights to sit in judgment of themselves and others. This is disgusting, or in the word of my friend Geoff, "Another reason the UN should be taken out and shot."

[I'll consider this issue more as soon as I get some breathing space here...]

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