As Muravchik noted at a March 31 AEI conference on the UNHRC, the founders hoped that the UN would serve as “a moral beacon, shining the light of inspiration or of shame,” and viewed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UNHRC as the “epicenter of that hope.” The commission continues, however, to discuss human rights in abstract legal terms and to allow nations with clear human rights violations to not only participate, but to take leading roles, as notoriously demonstrated by Libya’s chairing of the 2003 commission. Lorne W. Craner of the U.S. Department of State questioned whether the commission could actually be reformed when 40 percent of its member countries, including China, Cuba, and Iran, continue violating basic human rights.
Jeannie Henderson of the Embassy of Australia commented that the commission criticizes human rights abuses, but has little power to enforce any punishment. She argued that only if the high commissioner for human rights has more influence on the ground and the UNHRC supports strong civil institutions and accountability within member states will it ever become an effective advocate for human rights. Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch contended that the UNHRC does inspire oppressed peoples and properly criticizes human rights abusers, but should limit its membership to those states willing to admit commission rapporteurs.
Alison Kelly of the Embassy of Ireland noted that developing countries perceive the Western world as assuming the role of “moral policeman” while advocating their vision of standards and values as universal. Many countries also perceive the developed world as emphasizing civil and political rights at the expense of economic and social rights. Malinowski claimed that the politics of transatlantic relations affect the UNHRC as European states tend to allow the United States to take the lead on “naming and shaming” countries, and the United States often alienates its allies over antiterrorism tactics and the mundane wording of resolutions.
The credibility of the United Nations has been further damaged by the emerging scandal in the Iraqi oil-for-food program, designed to provide food and medicine for the people of Iraq while economic sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s government were in effect. AEI’s Newt Gingrich wrote in the April 5 edition of the Washington Times that instead of benefiting Iraqis, the program may have allowed Saddam Hussein to collect up to “$10 billion in illegal cash kickbacks” while several well-connected foreigners benefited through “oil shipments or vouchers at below market prices,” realizing huge gains through resale.
Gingrich cited a January report by the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada listing 270 people and organizations from around the world as beneficiaries of oil-for-food program malfeasance. The report alleged that 1.4 billion barrels of Iraqi oil were illegally transferred to the Russian state. The French reportedly received 165 million barrels of oil, and Gingrich noted that “there is strong indication that all of the financial transactions from the list were directed by the Parisian bank BNP.” In fact, the report accused oil-for-food executive director Benon V. Sevan of personally receiving 11.5 million barrels of oil.
Amidst consideration of UNHRC reform, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has already called for a full investigation into the oil-for-food scandal. In both cases, attempts to benefit oppressed peoples have clearly fallen short. Critics argue that UN programs desperately need reform if they are ever to provide hope and inspiration for those living under tyranny.