Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Global Pressure on the U.N. To Better Address Human Rights Violations:
Why It's Intensifying Now, And Why the U.N. Needs to Listen


Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005

In a few weeks, international legal commentators will begin one of their favorite annual rituals: slamming the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Every March, the Commission meets for six weeks at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. During that time, it hears reports of human rights violations from representatives of a number of countries.But in addition to the reports, over the past few years, many attendees have voiced criticism of the entire U.N. system.

Now, the stakes are greater than ever. The outrage has reached higher levels than usual, and it carries much more weight than usual, for the pressures on the U.N. to reform its ways are enormous.

At the same time, a growing number of political leaders concerned with human rights violations around the world are beginning to explore options other than the U.N. for raising their concerns in the international arena.

The U.N. is thus faced with a choice between reform and irrelevancy when it comes to human rights issues. But meanwhile, with its 60th anniversary approaching on June 26, the organization is more and more embattled - and perhaps less able to address these crucial issues. For this reason, the success of reforms in the way the U.N. deals with reports of human rights violations may also depend on the success of more general reforms of the U.N. that have been, and will be, proposed.

Recent Problems at the U.N. Have Caused the U.S. to Seek Reform

The past year has been especially difficult for the U.N. and its Secretary General Kofi Annan. News coverage about the U.N. has been dominated by accounts of the sexual misbehavior of U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo and the Balkans, and the financial irregularities dogging the Oil for Food program in Iraq.

How will these and other such problems be addressed? First, the U.N. itself has initiated an internal review process. Accordingly, a broad panel of high-ranking officials from around the world recently presented Annan with a report entitled "A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility." It contained dozens of detailed recommendations, some of which Annan will doubtless adopt.

Second, the U.S. Congress has started its own review of the U.N. Recently, Congress created a bi-partisan task force of former high-level governmental leaders, charged with the dual mission of examining ways to deal with the recent problems of the U.N. and proposing reforms.

This task force -- organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace and co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority leader George Mitchell -- has been directed to find ways to help the U.N. to realize more fully the purposes of its Charter.

It plans to complete its report by June. The task force's report will likely carry great weight, because the United States, in addition to being a -some would say the-- leading world power, is also the leading financial contributor to the United Nations. The expectation is that Congress and the Bush administration will be able to act on the task force's recommendations before the fall U.N. General Assembly begins.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission's Grave Mistake: Seating Egregious Violators

Like the history of the U.N. itself, the history of the U.N. Human Rights Commission is filled with promise - promise that has not always been fulfilled, and in some cases, that has been grossly betrayed.

The fundamental purpose of the 53-member Commission is to implement the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which holds that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." To serve this purpose, the Commission investigates and offers conclusions about complaints of rights abuses. In some ways, it is supposed to represent the conscience of the U.N., and of the world community.

It was shocking, then, when last year, Sudan was granted a seat on the Commission - despite the fact that Sudan's government was, even then, under investigation for engaging in genocide in the Darfur region in the western part of that troubled country. Having failed to respond effectively to the Sudan government's atrocities, the U.N. only added salt to a very deep wound when it selected that country to begin serving its third consecutive two-year term on the prestigious Commission.

This year, things got even worse. A small working group that includes three of the world's worst rights abusers -- China, Cuba, and Zimbabwe - will have veto power as to which human rights complaints the entire Commission will hear. (Other members of the "Working Group on Situations" are Hungary, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia - also a human rights violator, as I will discuss below.)

How could this have happened? The answer lies in the alliance-based structure of the U.N. For instance, Sudan is a member of four important voting blocs: the 56-nation Islamic Conference, the 53-nation African Union, the 22-member League of Arab States, and the 115-member Non-Aligned Movement. And Cuba is supported by a bloc of Latin American countries. (Thus, the Cuban Foreign Ministry web site points out that Argentina proposed Cuba for membership on the human rights panel.)

Organizations that monitor the United Nations are deeply concerned about the implications of this balance of power, as Joanne Mariner discussed in an earlier column for this site. And the U.N. itself, in its recent internal report, determined that that the Commission suffers a serious problem of credibility--a problem that casts doubts not only on the Commission's own reputation, but also on the overall reputation of the United Nations.

The U.S.'s Selective Criticism of Violators: Conspicuous Silence on Saudi Arabia

The Congressional Commission task force has criticized the workings of the U.N. Commission. For example, Member Newt Gingrich recently stated, "I regard the Human Rights Commission as one of the more egregious scandals that we will be looking at." But the Bush Administration has been selective, to say the least, in its criticism of human rights violators.

Last week, a U.S. State Department spokesperson denounced the selection of Cuba and Zimbabwe for the Working Group - but was silent about Saudi Arabia. Similarly, during her recent Senate confirmation hearings, Condoleezza Rice listed Cuba and Zimbabwe among six "outposts of tyranny" - but omitted Saudi Arabia, a well-documented authoritarian monarchy.

Only a little less than a year ago, the State Department's February 25, 2004 report on Saudi Arabia called that government's human rights record "poor." But now the State Department claims that a "reform movement" is under way in that country, pointing to upcoming local village elections.

The real reason for the U.S.'s silence on Saudi Arabian human rights violations is obvious: The U.S. needs Saudi Arabia as a chief ally in the war against terrorism, and needs continued access to that country's wealth of oil. And this is particularly true now -- as the U.S. begins to escalate its criticism of Iran for its continuing nuclear power program, and increasingly needs to count at least some Arab states as its allies in the Middle East.

The U.S.'s Glass House: Why It Has Trouble Criticizing Others' Rights Violations

The omission of Saudi Arabia isn't the only inconsistency - some might say, hypocrisy - in the U.S.'s criticism of human-rights-violating states. The U.S.'s own conduct has made it vulnerable to criticism. Meanwhile, despite some revision of the Administration's legal positions, it remains far from clear whether the U.S. will comply with international legal obligations, such as those imposed by the Geneva Conventions, in the future.

Indeed, U.S. conduct will likely be on trial before the U.N. Human Rights Commission this year. Cuba's official news agency said that the Commission will consider, among other cases, "the well documented atrocities committed by the U.S. government in Iraq, particularly the brutal procedures used against prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail and at the prison camp set up at the illegal U.S. naval base located in the eastern Cuban province of Guantanamo."

The Abu Ghraib photographs, of course, shocked and disgusted the world. But they are not the only evidence of serious human rights violations by the U.S.. The world has begun to hear testimony from officers involved in horrifying treatment of prisoners in U.S, controlled bases around the globe.

Underscoring this point, last week, six U.N. human rights experts - the chairpersons of several working groups of the Commission, including those on torture and arbitrary detention -- expressed "serious concerns" over the status of the detainees held in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, by the United States on grounds of terrorism.

The human rights experts noted pointedly that many inmates are completing their third year of virtually incommunicado detention. They have not been provided with legal assistance, or with information as to how long their detention may last. And they live under conditions that, according to numerous observers, amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.

Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the situations at other foreign prisons thus have eaten away at U.S. credibility. Secretary of State Rice seems to be attempting to rebuild at least some of this credibility - indicating she wants to improve relations with Europe, for instance, and move toward "spreading freedom." Rice seems to be referring to human rights principles when she recently spoke of shaping a "global balance of power" based on the "power of ideas, the power of compassion, and the power of hope." Still, the U.S. has a long way to go if it is to convince the international community that it is going to be serious and consistent on human rights issues.

Addressing Human Rights Violations Outside the U.N. and Without the U.S.

No wonder then, that some nations have taken matters into their own hands when it comes to human rights violations - unable to trust either the U.N. or the U.S. in this area.

At the end of January, representatives from 30 Latin American and Caribbean nations gathered in Mexico to begin creating a new regional body that will monitor human rights in the hemisphere. Mexican officials are calling the organization "an informal mechanism for regional cooperation,'' and hail it for its potential to help governments comply with international law. As the Washington Post's Marcela Sanchez has reported, regional politicians are praising this new organization as a venue to discuss human rights violations in Cuba without the usual politicized bickering between Washington and Havana.

Yet, there is much debate over this proposal. For instance, some worry that such a structure may undermine the already existing human rights system under the Organization of American States. That structure includes the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Court of Human Rights. The OAS and its Inter-American Commission have operated with much success over the past decades.

The U.S. Versus the U.N.: The Clash Over Darfur

Even as the U.S. - through Secretary of State Rice -- is trying to shore up its dubious credibility on human rights issues, it seems it has decided not to do so through the U.N.

For example, the Bush Administration is continuing its longstanding objection to the U.N.'s International Criminal Court (ICC) -- even though lives may well be lost through the delay. The U.N. Security Council wanted to refer Darfur atrocities to the ICC, but the U.S. - armed with a Security Council veto - has insisted on the creation of a brand new tribunal for Darfur, based in Tanzania.

Explaining the rationale, US ambassador-at-large for war crimes Pierre-Richard Prosper said, "We don't want to be party to legitimizing the ICC." But as Joanne Mariner explained in a column on U.S. policy on this issue, creating a new tribunal will be time-consuming. While bureaucracy lurches forward, Sudanese citizens will continue to be murdered in an appalling genocide that the U.S. has recognized as such, but done nothing about thus far.

We already have blood on our hands; delay will only increase our culpability. We already let one African nation down - as President Clinton admitted in discussing Rwanda. Must we ignore rampant bloodshed in another? Does the U.S. prefer to intervene only in European genocides?

The Ultimatum to the U.N.: Reform Yourself, or Risk Irrelevance

The U.N. has been placed on notice: It must either reform itself, or watch its own power fade. The stakes are higher now for the Human Rights Commission, and the U.N. as a whole, than they have ever been.

U.N. power is threatened from a number of different sources. The U.S. is looking more to political alliances, and less to legal structures, to shape the emerging international order, and organizations; it seems to want to render the U.N. irrelevant.

Meanwhile, regional human rights organizations already exist, and the advent of more is a real possibility; they will inevitability chip away at U.N. power on human rights issues, especially if they can retain the kind of credibility that the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission sorely lacks.

In sum, March will be a historic make-or-break moment for the international legal order. The U.N.'s Human Rights Commission must radically transform itself if it is to survive.

Noah Leavitt, an attorney and author, has worked with several branches of the U.N. system. The views expressed here are his alone. Leavitt can be contacted at

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard