Down with human rights [Archives:2005/881/Opinion]

September 29 2005

The relationship between the United Nations and the human-rights movement has always been ambiguous. On the one hand, human-rights ideology – and it is an ideology, every bit as much as Communism was or neo-liberalism is today – is profoundly legalist, claiming legitimacy from treaties and other international and national instruments. These include, as “first among equals,” the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The modern human-rights movement was born out of the UN, and in many ways it has never entirely left home.

On the other hand, the UN is more a bully pulpit for the promulgation of the high ideals of human rights, equality, and personal and economic freedom than it is a way station on the road to world government (no matter what some conservative extremists in the United States imagine). Indeed, at its institutional core, the UN is an inter-governmental body whose officials, from the most junior staffer to the Secretary General, serve at the pleasure of its member states – above all, its powerful member states. As a result of this profound contradiction between ambition and mandate, the UN often seems to impede the advance of human-rights goals as much as it realizes them.

Doubters need only recall the unwillingness of Secretary General after Secretary General, from U Thant to Kofi Annan, to meet with – or, in some cases, even to permit on the UN's premises – victims of human rights violations who had the misfortune of being born in powerful countries. For all the UN's intellectual commitment to the furtherance of human rights, it knows better than to incite the displeasure of the Chinese or the Russians by receiving activists from Tibet or Chechnya.

In fairness, no UN Secretary General has paid greater homage to the ideals of the human-rights movement, or attempted, at least rhetorically, to associate the UN with those ideals, than Kofi Annan. Rhetoric is not reality, of course, and the UN's declarations have often seemed far removed from its daily practice. But words are not without consequences, and there is little question that human rights has occupied a higher place in international deliberations during Annan's tenure than ever before. Moreover, Annan's appointee as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Irish President Mary Robinson, was instrumental in many developing countries' adoption of a human-rights agenda, which previously was often viewed as a flag of convenience for Western meddling.

People close to Annan say that he hoped to build on these successes during the UN's recently concluded summit. In March, he wrote that “the Organization [must] take the cause of human rights as seriously as those of security and development.” Among his key proposals was the replacement of the largely discredited UN Commission on Human Rights – a body that has no mechanism for excluding even notorious human-rights violators like Libya, Cuba, or Zimbabwe – with a new Human Rights Council, where such embarrassments would in theory not be tolerated.

It is generally agreed that the summit was largely a failure. Annan himself conceded as much in the speech he gave at the opening of the 60th UN General Assembly.

There are many reasons for this. There was the US government's eleventh-hour decision to table hundreds of objections to the final Summit Declaration, effectively reducing it to a series of lowest-common-denominator platitudes. There was also skepticism among developing countries about whether a stronger UN commitment to human rights was what Annan claimed it to be or, instead, merely a moral flag of convenience – or worse, a legal warrant for Western military intervention.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the stratagems of John Bolton, the fiercely anti-UN diplomat whom President Bush recently appointed US ambassador to the UN, and rightly so. But what has tended to get lost in these discussions are the malign synergies between a Third World suspicious that so-called humanitarian interventions are only colonialism redux and a unilateralist US administration wedded to the concept of pre-emptive war against enemies that it equates with states that violate human rights.

Because the Bush administration, as its officials repeatedly insist, placed the installation of democratic, human-rights-oriented regimes, by force if necessary, at the core of US foreign policy, those who see only aggressive imperialism in America's interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq view human rights in a more skeptical light. In a sense, the UN, Annan, and the human-rights activists who have been perhaps his biggest backers, are caught in the crossfire.

All of this brings to mind one of the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel's late films. The pre-credit sequence shows a group of Spanish guerrillas during the insurgency against Napoleon being led to a wall where they are to be executed by firing squad. At the head of the firing party, a French soldier carries the Tricolor forward. On it are the great words, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The guerrillas are led to the wall, and, just as the soldiers are raising their guns to their shoulders, one insurgent shouts, “Down with liberty!” We have not progressed very far, it seems.

David Rieff is the author of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention and the acclaimed A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2005. w