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The UN's Moral Irrelevance

The UN's Moral Irrelevance

The choice of one of the world's most repressive tyrannies to head the UN's main human rights body was a textbook illustration of the way the UN works.


January 23, 2003

The American delegate put a brave face on it.

"This is not a defeat for the United States," US Ambassador Kevin Moley said after Libya was elected to the chairmanship of the United Nations' highest human rights panel on Monday. "This is a defeat for the Human Rights Commission."

The vote was 33 to 3, with only Canada and (reportedly) Guatemala joining the United States in voting no. Seventeen countries, mostly European, abstained.

The ambassador's sentiments were understandable. Of course it is preposterous to think of Muammar Qadhaffi's brutal regime -- which tortures dissidents, imprisons citizens without charge, and prohibits freedom of speech, assembly, and religion -- as a champion of liberty and due process. Everyone knows that Libya, architect of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 victims over Lockerbie, Scotland, is a foe, not a friend, of human rights.

Nevertheless, the ambassador was wrong. The choice of one of the world's most repressive tyrannies to head the UN's main human rights body was not in any sense a defeat for the commission. Nor was it an embarrassment to the UN. On the contrary, it was a textbook illustration of the way the UN works.

The Human Rights Commission's true purposes are to give Third World bullies a venue for grandstanding, to ensure that the world's cruelest rulers escape condemnation, and to bash Israel.

Despite its name, the United Nations is not a fraternity of peoples. It is an association of governments, and it makes no distinction between those that rule with the consent of the governed and those that rule through force and fear. Inside the UN, a bloody despotism is every inch the equal of a liberal democracy. A government that respects human dignity has exactly the same vote as a government that tramples it. And while lip service is routinely paid to the high principles of the UN Charter, those principles are irrelevant to the UN's decisions and deliberations.

If the Human Rights Commission were really concerned with human rights, the accession of a ghoulish regime like Libya's to the chair would indeed be a scandal. But the commission's true purposes are to give Third World bullies a venue for grandstanding, to harangue Western democracies, to ensure that the world's cruelest rulers escape condemnation, and, of course, to bash Israel. There's nothing in that agenda to disqualify Libya. Or, for that matter, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, China, Syria, Sudan, or Zimbabwe -- each a notorious human-rights violator and each a commission member in good standing.

The lopsided vote for Libya, including all those cowardly European abstentions, speaks volumes about the UN's character. It has become a monument to sanctimony and cynicism. It is a place where dishonesty and injustice are routine -- where atrocious governments get away with appalling behavior because better governments lack the courage to face them down. The United Nations is a moral wasteland, and it is folly to treat its imprimatur as a benchmark of international legitimacy.

Which is why it was a mistake for the Bush administration to seek a green light from the UN before undertaking the liberation of Iraq. The Security Council has no interest in shutting down Saddam Hussein's reign of terror. It is not willing to destroy him before he acquires the ability to destroy countless additional victims. No one should have been surprised this week when France and Germany announced that they are opposed to military action against Saddam Hussein. That is the position that they, like the rest of the Security Council save Britain, have taken all along.

The inspections are a farce. Inspectors can verify that a country has voluntarily dismantled its illegal weapons; they cannot disarm a government that is determined to deceive. "Even the best inspectors have almost no chance of discovering hidden weapons sites . . . in a country the size of Iraq," wrote David Kay, the UN's former chief nuclear weapons inspector, in The Washington Post on Sunday.

Seven years of inspections in the 1990s failed to shut down Saddam's chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs; no serious person can believe that another round of this charade, under a much less aggressive chief inspector, will be any more successful. In any event, it is clear that no matter what Hans Blix and his team may find, Iraq's protectors on the Security Council will insist it is not enough to justify war.

The UN has gone as far as it will go: Under American pressure it passed Resolution 1441, which confirmed that Iraq "remains in material breach of its obligations" dating back to the Gulf War and offered Saddam one "final opportunity" to avoid "serious consequences" by complying. Those were strong, clear words and if the Security Council were worthy of its name, it would be prepared to back them up with strong, clear action.

That it isn't, is a pity. But the UN's lack of moral fiber must not keep the United States from acting. War is always risky, but appeasement and denial are more dangerous by far. The dissolution of Saddam's poisonous dictatorship can no longer wait.

January 25, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Frank Adam, July 28, 2014 11:35 AM

Be careful what you wish for!

Just because the UN is immoral does not mean it is politically irrelevant. It has been and continues to be a practical post office and political market but as Reaganites and Thatcherites believe you can not beat markets that should not be a problem of any sort. It just makes things clearer if nobody is pretending to morality but is only counting beans.
For the record with China and India wrapping up a third of the World population on two votes at one end; there are at the midgets' end 25 votes in the hands of two dozen "countries" of less than a million population and 16 of those ocean islands or beach enclaves have fewer than 100 000 people.
Israel, with Switzerland, is actually the median (1/2 way down the list) of the 190 members' range . The mean average (average as usually understood) UN member is in the 30 millions eg Argentina, Canada, Poland. Comfortable, industrial but good health and safety and public services but still the sort of independence that involves being polite to neighbours and not stamping on the tulips of the greats.

(5) Richard Garcia, July 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Non-democracies being democratic

The irony of the U.N. is that it is (ideally any way)a thoroughly democratic institution made up primarily of bodies that are thoroughly un-democratic. The outrage that a country such as Libya could hold the chairmanship of the Human rights Commission is the obvious outcome of a system where every country is given an equal say in the governance of the U.N., regardless of whether that country is a democracy or a dictatorship.Thus we see, time and time again, this unusual irony in the U.N.- the irony of tyrannies voting democratically to uphold tyrannical policies.

This should give pause to those in this country who advocate higher voter turn-out at all costs. But then again-most of these advocates are probably quite satisfied that Libya holds the chairmanship.

Thus we see, time and time again, this unusual irony in the U.N.- the irony of tyrannies voting democratically to uphold tyrranical policies.

(4) Andrew Gelbman, February 20, 2003 12:00 AM

We'd be better off without the UN

Dustin is right, without the UN we'd have no Kyoto Protocol,no Montreal Protocol, no UN Declaration on Human Rights (an orwellian document which in article 29c states that all rights enumnerated in the declaration are priviledges that can only be exercised with the permission of the UN).

Furthermore, we'd have no UN commission on religion which has defined Judaism (and several branches of Christianity) out of existence.

No, Dustin, without the UN we'd have had no massacres in Rwanda, no race war in Zimbabwe, no genocide in Sudan, no atrocities under the UN puppet regime in Angola. We'd have no international diplomatic cover for Arab terror, no diplomatic forum for every band of homicidal malcontents on the planet, no organized assualt on national sovereignty of democracies and private property rights of individuals.

We'd have none of these things and the world would be a better place for it.

(3) Robin Starkman, January 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Libya? Libya?

As if Israel does not have enough troubles with the UN! Who would have ever thought for a second that Libya would be head fo anything other than terror? I agree with the article.; I say it is time to dismantle the UN it is a waste of time and space in this time. When countries like Libya, Sudan, and China have the same vote as the US, Israel and others it is a very sad day for the world!

(2) Dustin Deeks, January 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Don't Give Up on the U.N. Yet

Althought the United Nations is not living up to it's ideal, it represents the best attempt at a cooperative World government to date. Keep in mind that without the U.N., there would be no Kyoto Protocol, Montreal Protocol, Ottawa land mine treaty, Nuclear non-proliferation treaty, decolonization of former imperial holdings, or security council to debate world events. It's the duty of democratic nations to improve the character and function of this highest of human acheivements. If we disregard the U.N., what guarantee do we have that the despotisms of the world will?

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