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.