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by Joshua Muravchik


The UN is sick beyond remedy.

Its Human Rights Council last week concluded its most recent session, and as Anne Bayefsky of Eye on the UN aptly summarized it, the council "abandon[ed] human rights victims the world over and contribut[ed] to the spread of anti-Semitism."

This, you may say, is nothing new, and you would be right. But the story of how we got here and where we are headed next helps to bring into focus the full vileness of this institution.

The council was created in 2006 as one cornerstone of an overhaul of the United Nations in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal, which had spread a dark stain on it like the one the BP gusher has unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico. The council was designed to supplant the Commission on Human Rights, which had been created sixty years earlier at the instigation of the United States. That body was formed under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and a panel of distinguished international scholars and jurists who also composed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Over the decades, the vaunting idealism with which the commission was conceived had given way to the tawdry politics that came to characterize the UN. It all came to be symbolized by the 2003 elevation of Libya to chair the commission, notwithstanding that Libya had been ruled as a personal fiefdom by Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi since 1969 and had made the Freedom House list of the "worst of the worst" of the world's repressive countries every year since this category was conceived.

If Libya's election was outrageous, that still does not fully explain why it received special attention. Previously elected chairs of this august body had included the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, as well as Poland and Bulgaria when they were Communist colonies of the former USSR. Whatever the reason, Qaddafi's triumph seemed to have brought matters to a head, and when the oil-for-food program opened the trickle-gates of UN reform, the commission became a ready target. Secretary General Kofi Annan said its performance "casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."

Thus, throughout 2005, Annan worked hand in glove with the Bush administration to design a reform plan that would abolish the commission and replace it with a Human Rights Council. The manner of its composition, the shape of its agenda, the frequency of its meetings were to be different from those of the old commission, and were designed to prevent the hypocrisies for which that body had become infamous. The question this raised was whether the abominable record of the commission had been due to structural defects or to a deeper flaw, namely the political atmosphere of the UN itself.

Now we know the answer. After four years, the record of the council is, if anything, worse than that of its predecessor. Kofi Annan's perception that the old commission had "cast a shadow" on the UN was an optical illusion: he was seeing the UN's own darkness.

The essence of the problem was illustrated by last month's election of new members. (Members serve a three-year term, with one-third elected each year.) As usual, the "election" was like those of authoritarian regimes: the number of nominees exactly equaled the number of seats to be filled, so that members were left only to vote aye or nay. And as usual, dictatorial states had little difficulty cutting deals to get themselves nominated, notwithstanding the mandate instructing the members to "take into account the candidates' contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights."

Only Iran was kept off the list, and this had nothing to do with its practice of torturing and murdering citizens who ask for honest elections, but rather was due to the fact that Tehran has alienated not only the Western states but also the Arabs. Just to make clear that Iran's exclusion should not be interpreted as a sign of disapproval of its treatment of its own citizens, the mullahs' regime was put in charge of a separate UN body on women's rights. Who better?

Freedom House teamed up with UN Watch to pressure the UN member states to keep in mind human rights when choosing council members. Of the 14 nominees, they judged only five "qualified" for seats, four others as "questionable," and five as "not qualified." Needless to say, all of the latter five were elected nonetheless. They were Angola, Mauritania, Malaysia, Qatar, and - you guessed it - Libya. The opposition scored its best showing against Qaddafi's regime, rallying a grand total of 37 nay votes to 155 ayes.

In other words, only one-fifth of the member states cared a whit about the UN's human rights efforts. There you have the whole story. The illness cannot be cured. It is terminal.

Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies and formerly a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He has published more than 300 articles on politics and international affairs and authored 9 books. His most recent is The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.

This article appeared June 30, 2010 on the World Affairs website
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Editor's Note: The video "The One About The UN" by is funny but right on target. See it here. has also made "The One About Hamas" at and "The One About Iran" at


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