Friday, March 10, 2006

Reforming the UN Human Rights Commission

I had promised myself that I wasn't going to blog about the UN today. I've been savaging international law and the UN lately, and I was ready to give it a rest. Unfortunately, castigating the UN is like shooting fish in a's just too easy, and the opportunity always presents itself.

In today's Chicago Tribune, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) has an excellent op-ed urging the US to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Commission if it doesn't adopt the more serious reforms auggested by the US, including standards to keep gross violators like Sudan and Zimbabwe off of the Commission. Frist notes that "this international human rights monitor can point to few successes. It failed to speak out against communism, failed to act against Rwanda's genocide and failed to condemn nations that sponsor terrorism. Every day, governments from Venezuela to China, and from Saudi Arabia to Eritrea, take actions that belie any commitment to human rights. The commission, however, remains virtually silent."

Among the problems that Frist notes in one that I've been harping about for some time now: the UN's commitment to sovereign equality at the expense of values and ideals. "
While any commission needs geographic diversity, human rights records have to come first: Current geographic quotas reserve seats on the commission for 15 African nations even though international democracy monitor Freedom House says the continent has only seven truly free countries." Furthermore, Frist argues "with 53 members, the current commission is too large to conduct business efficiently. We should cut the number of nations seated on an international human rights body by at least a third and require that new members secure overwhelming support."

But most interesting of all, Frist suggests that:
If the UN doesn't approve a meaningful reform package by the commission's March 13 meeting, the U.S. should seriously consider joining with other responsible countries to create a new human rights body outside of the UN system. We could jump-start such an initiative by withdrawing the U.S. share of funds that would otherwise go to the Human Rights Commission and giving those resources to the new organization.
This is an excellent idea. Despite the scorn heaped on the US by much of the international community, the US is a vital cog in the functioning of the UN and the Human Rights Commission in particular. When the US was kicked off of the Commission several years ago as punishment for, in essence, its hegemonic behavior, the Commission became even less competent and capable than it is normally. The US is the only country with the leverage, credibility, and assets to craft compromises, advance negotiations, and acheive any kind of meaningful progress. Tellingly, the US was voted back on to the Commission at the next opportunity.

If the US were to leave the UN Human Rights Commission, it would be truly exposed for the worthless, ineffective body that it is. And if the US could entice its ideological ilk to join it in creating a new human rights organization, outside of the UN and without a strict commitment to sovereign equality, that commission could actually have some power in enticing states to improve their behavior.

Any such commission should be linked into a larger network of liberal states, such as NATO, the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF, that would provide incentives for other states to join. If you want membership in NATO, if you want the free trade benefits of the WTO, if you want to be eligible for loans from the World Bank or the IMF, join the human rights body as well. The presence of carrots and sticks would make it possible for real punishments. Of course, these would apply to the US as well, but the US has already agreed to international oversight of its trading practices, so why not its human rights record?


Martin said...

I'd like to think you're on the right track here, but until the US does something about its own recent human rights record (Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, illegal domestic wiretapping - Bill Frisk himself made sure this wouldn't be investigated!!, and so on) then it really doesn't have any credibility in this area.

Yes Sudan for example has a record many orders of magnitude worse, but Sudan is a poor corrupt country. If the richest country in the world, the one which proclaims freedom louder than anyone, cannot live up to its ideals, then it won't get far calling on others to do so.

I'd love to see some real progress on human rights, and a bit less noise. So, Bill Frisk, put your own house in order, sanction China for its terrible record rather than be swayed by trading considerations, and a lot of people will suddenly be on your side when you give the UN a hard time.

Seth Weinberger said...

Come on...comparing the US to Sudan is absolutely absurd as well as a straw man argument. No one claims that the US has a perfect human rights record; nor, for that matter, does any country. Just look at the European speech codes, for example. But all democratic countries have oversight, methods of challenge, and other modes by which violations get exposed, confronted, analyzed, and often fixed. That's what makes them superior, and not comparable to, authoriatrian, repressive regimes.

Furthermore, there needs to be a more sophisticated analysis performed when thinking about how best to improve human rights records in various countries. For a country that is seeking to integrate itself into the international community, like China, engaging the country is much more likely to result in improved human rights than would sanctions, ostracization, or other punishments. Look at how far China has come in the last 10 or 15 years; would it have happened if the US had continued to punish China for Tiananmen Square? For countries with little interest in interdependence, like Sudan or North Korea, punishment is more likely to work.

Any way, no matter how you think human rights should be improved, the UN is simply not the vehicle to achieve such improvement.

Anonymous said...

But Martin does have a point that when the US is very visibly violating its own principles, and even annoying allies in so doing (such as some of those allies with citizens sitting in Gitmo), it's going to have some problems casting itself as Foremost Defender of Human Rights. I'm an American living abroad and I cannot begin to tell you how much credibility the US has lost in the last couple of years.

geoff said...

I think the point is that when the US "visibly violates its own principles" it does so in an environment which goes a long way toward ameliorating abuses -- because of public outrage, because of democratic politics, etc.

The US violating its principles is very different than Sudan violating those principles. The one case leads to, say, extremely controversial incarceration along with loud public discourse, law suits and political consequences. The other leads to genocide.