Peer to Peer
Kofi Annan is trying to "reform" the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. His plan will only make matters worse.
By David A. Schwarz
Weekly Standard
08/29/2005 12:00:00 AM


THIS SEPTEMBER, the United Nation's 2005 World Summit will debate "an achievable set of proposals," submitted by Secretary General Kofi Annan, to reform the U.N.'s core functions in the areas of economic development, security, and the protection of human rights. The characterization of the reforms as "achievable" is ominous, given that most member states are not particularly interested in fundamental change at Turtle Bay. Worse, the proposed reforms--which include the expansion of the Security Council--may weaken the organization's ability to condemn aggression, or to intercede with peacekeeping forces to prevent another Rwanda or Sudan.

Take, for example, the proposed "reform" of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Once dubbed the "conscience of the United Nations," that Commission has become a cruel joke--a point even Annan concedes, albeit in guarded diplomatic parlance. To get the punch line, one need only consider the current composition of the Commission, which includes six nations on Freedom House's list of the ten most repressive regimes in the world.

ANNAN PROPOSES TO REPLACE the 53-member Commission with a smaller "Human Rights Council," akin in stature to the Security Council, or, if that won't fly, as a subsidiary of the General Assembly. In addition to being a "standing body," able "to meet regularly and at any time to deal with imminent crises and allow for timely and in-depth consideration of human rights issues," the Council would undertake a function not expressly accorded to the Commission: A "peer review" of the human rights practices of all U.N. member states.

The word "peer" usually connotes someone or something of equal worth, quality, or characteristics. In Annan's locution, however, "peer" countries need share only a single, least common denominator: basic territorial sovereignty. Indeed, Annan appears to contemplate no higher standard than that even for members of the new Human Rights Council itself. The "peer review" scrutiny he proposes will not be a test of admission to the Council. To the contrary, the same despotic regimes which populate the current Commission on Human Rights will be eligible for election to the successor Human Rights Council, where they will ever after sit in judgment on their democratic "peers"--while voting as a bloc to shade the scope and extent of any inquiry into their own domestic depredations.

THEN THERE IS THE PERENNIAL QUESTION concerning which human rights the Council should be monitoring. Annan proposes that the Council will "evaluate the fulfillment by all States of all their human rights obligations," with "equal attention" to the "entire spectrum of human rights," including such economic, social, and cultural rights as the "right to development." For decades, the asserted parity of economic goals and political and civil liberties has been a convenient way for despots to justify oppression in order to provide basic social services, or for third-world nations to demand massive redistribution of wealth from industrialized nations, under the guise of a "right to development."

Annan's peer review expressly codifies the moral equivalence between economic goals and political and civil rights. This should be deeply troubling to the U.S. delegation. For years, the United States has argued that any U.N. body charged with monitoring human rights should focus on the most egregious cases of abuse. Instead, the Commission has traditionally frittered away its energies and influence on items more appropriate to an aid conference, such as debt relief, "cultural rights," and the "right to education." Under Annan's prescription, the new Council would likely do the same.

UNDER ANNAN'S PROPOSAL the Council would retain some ability to "take action when serious human rights situations develop," but the only such "action" he specifies is the "option to adopt specific country resolutions" to address "urgent situations." That option, unfortunately, is one the Commission on Human Rights already enjoys. And it has generally been used in a highly selective manner, most often to single out Israel.

More typically, the only "action" taken by the Commission is a "no action" motion, a procedural gambit to block an up or down vote on country-specific resolutions. This year the Commission was unable to muster a majority of its members to condemn gross human-rights violations in North Korea. No resolution on Zimbabwe was offered, because it was clear that there weren't sufficient votes for a censure. Even when a truly "urgent" situation has arisen--such as the death and dispossession of millions in the Darfur region--the Commission has largely ducked the issue. Under Annan's proposal, country-specific resolutions in the new Council will likely suffer much the same fate.

This suits Annan just fine. He has made it clear that he does not like country-specific condemnations, and has obliquely criticized the United States and others for "politicizing" the Commission by bringing such resolutions. The peer review he offers as a less confrontational alternative would fail to produce the results that despotic regimes truly fear--a public rebuke and impartial investigations of their systematic abuses of human rights. This is why, year after year, China, Cuba, and other human-rights violators pull out all the diplomatic stops to persuade Commission members to turn a blind eye.

ANNAN'S SUGGESTION that a place on the Council be open to any state selected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly--with all regional groups "represented in proportion to their representation in the United Nations"--has already raised objections from the United States. Noting that the legitimacy of the Council will depend on the credibility of its membership, American diplomats argue that "[t]here should be clear, objective criteria for membership"--including, for example, that no country under U.N. sanctions should be eligible.

This is a step in the right direction. The problem begins, and may end, with who selects Council members. Placing its composition in the hands of the General Assembly is a formula for failure. While a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly may slow the inevitable stacking of the Council, it cannot stop it. The same problems that have crippled the Commission on Human Rights--regional consensus slates, bloc voting, and vote trading--will likely result in the appointment of countries that have no business sitting on the Council. The right place--or at least the preferable place--for membership decisions may be with the Security Council.

THE UNITED NATIONS has long recognized that there is a clear interrelationship between armed conflict, whether of a civil or cross-border nature, and the deprivation of human rights. The Security Council has a compelling role to play in the protection of minorities, the advancement of individual liberties, and the suppression of human rights abuses that are an instrument of any aggressive nation.

The Security Council could select members of the Human Rights Council based on some of the same objective criteria now applied for membership in the U.N. Democracy Caucus, such as: (1) the frequency of free and fair elections; (2) the presence or absence of free and independent media; and (3) the separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers. And as currently constituted, the Security Council--the vast majority of whose members happen to be democracies at the moment--might actually be expected to take such a mission seriously.

Absent objective selection criteria, the Security Council could at least insist that candidates for the Council formally apply for the job--and submit themselves to an impartial review of their human rights records, complete with open evidentiary hearings. Such scrutiny may discourage outlaw nations from applying, for the same reason that they so strenuously resist any discussion of their human rights practices at the Commission on Human Rights.

Failing these structural reforms, the Human Rights Council should be required to review the human-rights records of each of its members as the first order of business. The United States has called for a peer review mechanism of Council members within a year of their election, with a focus on the most acute cases of human rights abuse. Left to the Council, this is unlikely to scare many dictatorships away; but it might assure that the quid pro quo for their admission is an unblinking review of their own human rights practices.

ONE OTHER FIX SEEMS APPROPRIATE: As proposed, the Council will meet in Geneva, where the Commission on Human Rights conducted its business. While Council members may prefer the refuge of buildings that once housed that other monumental failure of collective security--the League of Nations--Geneva is too remote from major international media outlets. Bringing the proceedings to New York would better guarantee wide-ranging scrutiny of the members' own human-rights records.

What happens in September will be the first significant test of John Bolton's ability to effect meaningful U.N. reform. This week, a working group of 30 nations will try to achieve consensus on the most divisive of the proposals, including the definition of terrorism, the composition of the Human Rights Council, the size of the Security Council, and the overhaul of the U.N. bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, some U.N. ambassadors argue that it is important for their government's leaders to have something to sign when they meet to celebrate the U.N.'s 60th anniversary. Yet, embracing the superficial, or counterproductive, proposals on the table is likely to do nothing more than provide the United Nations a renewed credibility to which it is not entitled. As to the Commission on Human Rights, Bolton may be left with no choice but to endorse a call for its outright dissolution--unless, that is, he can ensure that a new and improved version will practice what it preaches.

Dissolution would not be a disaster. There is a growing sentiment that no meaningful reform of the U.N.'s human-rights bodies is possible. The preferable course may be to follow the lead of those democracies which have banded together to form the U.N. Democracy Caucus. This body, composed of established and emerging democracies, may ultimately prove to be a more powerful, and morally legitimate, outlet for the concerted expression of outrage over abuses that the United Nations refuses to acknowledge or address.

David A. Schwarz was a member of the 2001 U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. He practices law in Los Angeles, California.

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