The American Legion Magazine
August 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” So wrote George Orwell in his grim description of a world turned upside-down, where language is used to confuse rather than inform and the individual is a servant to the state rather than its master.  The calendar reads 2002, but if recent developments at the United Nations are any indication, we’re limping toward 1984.

What else could be said of a world where the most notorious abusers of human rights are chosen to protect and promote human rights—and the most ardent defender of human rights is shown the door? That’s exactly what happened in 2001-2002, as the United States lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time since the commission’s inception.  But the irony doesn’t end there, nor does the damage caused by the UN’s long slide into Orwellian oblivion.

Judge Not?

According to the UN Charter, the organization was created to lead the world "in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all." Within a year of its founding, the United Nations crafted its cornerstone document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together with the UN Charter, the Declaration put the United Nations firmly on the side of freedom and basic human rights.

Authored by the UN Commission on Human Rights and adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, the Declaration was a reaction not just to Nanking, Auschwitz and all the other man-made horrors of World War II, but to the political systems that spawned those horrors—and the indifference that gave them quarter. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson argued that no country had the right to sit in judgment of another. (Of course, Wilson made that case in 1915, long before his Fourteen Points sought to create a system that did exactly that.) After World War II, Wilson’s successors concluded that America had not only the right, but the duty, to judge the internal behavior of nations—and the legitimacy to export its political system and values around the world. The UN Human Rights Commission would become a key tool in that effort.

As Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, observes, the United States helped lay the very “foundations of the international human-rights system.” President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech served as the backdrop for the Human Rights Declaration. And FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was the Human Rights Commission’s first chair. From its founding in 1946 until 2001, the Commission always included a representative from the United States.[1]

All of this should serve as a reminder that human rights have never been a passing fancy to the United States. And as a consequence, for the United States to be dropped from the Commission speaks volumes about America’s relationship with the rest of the world and the credibility of the United Nations itself.

Musical Chairs

Before wading into the Orwellian debris, it may be helpful to define “human rights.” In a word, human rights are those freedoms and rights inherent to being human. According to the Declaration on Human Rights, they include life; liberty; security of person; freedom of religion, conscience, movement; freedom to own property, assemble, express opinions, work, form and join unions; and protection against arbitrary arrest, discrimination, slavery and torture.[2] The Commission’s main duty is “to examine, monitor and publicly report either on human-rights situations in specific countries or on…human-rights violations worldwide.”[3]

Despite their weighty responsibilities, the Commission’s 53 delegates are chosen through a process that invites mischief, which is exactly what happened during last year’s elections. Under the process, countries are grouped into five categories: 15 come from Africa, 12 from Asia, 11 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 10 from Western Europe and “other countries,” and five from Eastern Europe. (Given what happened in 2001-2002, it’s oddly fitting that the Human Rights Commission’s chief architect is tossed into the “others” category.) Elections are staggered, in a pattern similar to the US Senate. In the 2001 elections, for example, there were 14 seats open—three for Western Europe and “others.” Each group nominates its own candidates, and since the group that includes the United States nominated four candidates for three slots, one country would have to be left out—something like a diplomatic version of musical chairs. Despite written assurances to the contrary, the United States was that country.

The groupings guarantee that some of those most worthy of sitting on the panel won’t be included, while other countries that haven’t the capacity or the legitimacy to monitor human rights will be selected. It’s a sad fact that aside from a handful of notable exceptions, respect for human rights has simply not taken root in Asia or Africa. These continents may be the most populous on earth, but we can count on one hand the number of Asian and African governments that even attempt to nurture human rights. Latin America is only marginally better, yet these three groups are guaranteed 38 of the 53 seats on a body supposedly committed to promoting human rights.

Although our erstwhile friends in Europe talk plenty about human rights, they seldom act to promote them. Recall their utter failure to stop grievous human-rights violations in the Balkans, their eagerness to do business with Baghdad, their blind embrace of Beijing. The Europeans didn’t help the cause of human rights by breaking their word and giving America’s enemies an opportunity to silence the most active and articulate defender of human rights on the planet.

Profiles in Cowardice

Even so, the problem was not so much who was left out, but who was left on. As Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, observed, “The day the United States went off, Sudan went on.”[4] Indeed, after the voting and double-crossing was finally over, the 2002 UN Human Rights Commission included such human-rights stalwarts as China, Cuba, Indonesia, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria.

According to Amnesty International, the Indonesian government has permitted and perpetrated extra-judicial killings and torture against independence-minded minorities. Russia has done far worse in Chechnya. The Saudi government employs torture in its criminal-justice system and prohibits nearly all of the rights outlined in the Declaration. In Cuba, repression of dissent is actually enshrined in the constitution. Pakistan helped spawn the Taliban regime, which tortured an entire country. The Sudanese government turns a blind eye to slavery and supports groups that execute non-Muslims.

Then there is China, whose bribes and backroom deals maneuvered America off the Commission. Beijing runs more than a thousand slave-labor camps, imprisoning and “re-educating” between 15 and 20 million people for such crimes as speaking out against the government and conducting religious services in their homes.[5]

Incredibly, even as the Commission’s 2001 session came to a close and the Commission prepared to make its 2002 selections, it adopted resolutions condemning the human-rights situations in Burundi, Cuba, the Congo, Sudan and Russia—all members of the very body charged with promoting human rights. China used a mix of parliamentary trickery and old-fashioned payoffs to block a resolution criticizing its own human-rights record in 2001. The resolution’s chief sponsor was the United States.

Neither the resolution nor Beijing’s victims were given a passing thought by the Commission this year. Beijing and the Commission’s pliant European members made sure of that. In fact, according to Kevin Moley, head of the US delegation that observed the 2002 proceedings, Washington encouraged the Europeans to introduce a resolution condemning Beijing’s human-rights record. "We asked in every European capital," Moley explained. But all refused to shine a light on the deplorable situation in China.[6]

Instead, the Commission passed a resolution encouraging the Palestinians to use “all available means, including armed struggle” to carve out an independent state. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Rubin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy put the resolution in perspective: “Six European Union members and the [human] rights commission now join the 57 nations of the Islamic Conference in legitimizing suicide bombers.”[7] In doing so, they have made the Commission a farce.

Thanks to Italy’s and Spain’s joint decision to withdraw their candidacies, thus avoiding a repeat of 2001, the United States will return to the Commission next year. However, it is doubtful that the Commission can regain its lost legitimacy or rehabilitate its tarnished image anytime soon. America’s voice will again be heard, but so will China’s and Sudan’s and the other repeat offenders—and so will the echoes of 2001.


Predictably, foreign diplomats have blamed the United States for this sorry state of affairs, arguing that America’s failure to support programs such as the Children’s Rights Convention, Kyoto Treaty and International Criminal Court triggered a backlash.

Of course, there are very good reasons the United States has steered clear of some UN initiatives, not the least of which is the fact that they will be administered by governments that lack the legitimacy and internal safeguards of democracy or the courage to speak out against what is wrong.

The International Criminal Court, for example, would put US troops in jeopardy of being tried for war crimes by the same people who chose China and Sudan to safeguard human rights. The Court’s aims may be noble—war crimes and genocide have deformed mankind—but the ICC is ill-conceived. For example, it criminalizes “widespread” attacks against civilian populations; it defines “extensive destruction of property” as a war crime; it defines an attack in which civilians are likely to be injured or killed as a war crime; and it criminalizes the use of weapons that are intended to cause “unnecessary suffering.”[8]

How difficult would it be for a determined prosecutor to convince a panel awash in moral relativism that US war planners targeted Serbian population centers, that US pilots conducted a campaign to destroy Iraqi property, that US Rangers mounted raids into Mogadishu knowing that civilians would be killed, that US jets dropped munitions that caused unnecessary suffering in Afghanistan? The answer is not difficult at all, especially within the United Nations.

Consider the reaction to America’s anti-terror campaign. Just five days into the air war against the Taliban, Commissioner Robinson called on Washington to suspend the attacks, lest we “preside over the deaths from starvation of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, this winter.”[9] She then warned the United States not to mistreat detainees or endanger Afghanistan’s civilian population. The implication, of course, was that US troops wouldn’t treat their captives humanely and US pilots wouldn’t take care to protect civilians.  

The Orwellian poison soon leached beyond the Human Rights Commission. Dutch officials blasted Washington for failing to “uphold our norms and values.”[10] Coming from the same government that ordered its troops to stand aside, Pilate-like, as the Serbs rampaged through Srebrenica, their criticism is as hallow as their credibility. The Saudi government (the same government that lops off arms and legs for stealing) expressed concern over how the Pentagon was treating the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Human-rights authorities in Paris called the detainee camp a “parody of justice.” Remarkably, a British official concluded that America’s treatment of al-Queda terrorists somehow undermined the war against terrorism.[11]

Yet these same voices were strangely silent when al-Queda thugs murdered journalist Danny Pearl and executed Navy SEAL Neil Roberts, who was captured in the early hours of Operation Anaconda.

Seemingly fed up with the nonsense, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finally shot back in late March: The detainees, he fumed, “are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else.”[12] Indeed, each prisoner receives medical care, a 2400-calorie diet, books and religious materials.[13] 

Rumsfeld also reminded the critics that it was US military force that rescued Afghanistan from its dark past and even darker future—not UN relief agencies. “The only reason humanitarian workers are today back in Afghanistan is because of the US military,” he explained.[14] But don’t take the Pentagon’s word for it. As essayist Christopher Hitchens wrote in the left-leaning Nation magazine, which is anything but a friend of the Pentagon, “The United States has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age. This deserves to be recognized as an achievement.” The liberation and rescue of Afghanistan, he reminded the critics, “was accomplished with no serious loss of civilian life.”[15]

Perfectly Imperfect

The United States isn’t perfect, but there’s a reason people leave their homelands to come here, a reason they quote our founding founders instead of their own, a reason their rulers resent or despise America. Embedded within its system of government is a compass that points America in the direction of freedom, equality and human dignity—a yearning to “form a more perfect union.”

It is a yearning Americans have tried to transplant into the United Nations. But sadly, it hasn’t taken root. With its membership now dominated by undemocratic countries and its agencies controlled by the un-elected representatives of those countries, the United Nations has lost its way and devolved into something less than its founders envisioned. The result is a perversion of the very principles on which the organization was founded—and a world turned upside-down.

*Cover Story

[1] Mary Robinson, “Protecting Human Rights: The US, the UN and the World,” Jan.6, 2002.

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[3] UN, “Commission on Human Rights,” www.unchr.ch.

[4] PBS Newshour, May 9, 2001.

[5] See Amnesty International Country Reports 2001; Rep. Joe Scarborough statement,  May 10, 2001; The Economist, October 2, 1993; Vita Bite, “UNCHR: Recent Congressional Issues,” CRS Report to Congress, June 4, 2001.

[6]ELIZABETH OLSON, “China Evades U.N. Criticism of Rights Abuses,” New York Times, April 14, 2002.

[7] Michael Rubin, “The UN’s Refugees,” Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2002.

[8] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

[9] Keith Locke, “Civilians toll and UN Human Rights call for halt to air strikes,” Green Party of New Zealand, Oct. 31, 2001.

[10] Richard Serrano, “Rumsfeld strongly denies mistreatment of prisoners,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 23, 2002.

[11] TR Reid, “US pressed on detainees’ treatment,” Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2002; Margot Patterson, “US under fire for treatment of detainees,” NCR Online, March 28, 2002.


[13] John Mintz, Delegations praise detainees’ treatment,” Washington Post, Jan. 26, 2002.

[14] DoD briefing, April 3, 2002.

[15] Chris Hitchens, “The Ends of War,” The Nation, Dec. 17, 2001.