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