Human Rights at the UN

Human Rights at the UN

The day after Mary Robinson stepped down as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, forced out by determined pressure from Washington, George W.


The day after Mary Robinson stepped down as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, forced out by determined pressure from Washington, George W. Bush gave a speech at the UN that was at once an indirect tribute to the power of the human rights culture that Robinson has helped build and a potent reminder of how big a threat American isolationism is to that culture. Citing Saddam Hussein’s treatment of his “own” people as one of the reasons for taking action against him, Bush came close to endorsing the growing doctrine of “humanitarian intervention,” even as he strengthened the worst fears of its opponents by linking it to unilateral action.

However, as a denouncer of human rights violations, Robinson’s record is diametrically opposed to Bush’s partisan expediency. Even as she left office on September 11, she complained about how the United States, Russia, China and others were abusing human rights under cover of a war on terrorism and once again complained about the Bush Administration’s defiance of international law and domestic rights in its treatment of prisoners at the camp at Guantánamo.

For a long time many have dismissed as “politicization” any human rights critiques applied to their own partisan causes. Robinson and human rights organizations have helped carve out a stable base that can hold Havana and Washington, Israel and Arabs, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries to a single standard. One of her achievements was to help put human rights on the developing world’s agenda. She recalls that when she took office, developing-country leaders told her, “Don’t you know human rights is just a Western stick to beat us with? It is politicized, nothing to do with real concern about human rights.” And she agrees they had a point: Certainly the industrialized countries bitterly resented it when she addressed their failings. But by the time she left, the African Union was in accord with her on the importance of human rights to development.

After a decade that included Rwanda, the Balkans and Chechnya, Kofi Annan asked in 2000, “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica–to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” Robinson has suggested that one response, in parallel with economic globalization, is the development of a practical ethical globalization, the issue she says she will work on now that she has “quit the day job.” “We have the international norms and standards; we have the treaty bodies working more effectively; we have the rapporteurs. There’s an ability to name and shame; it’s accepted that human rights don’t stop at borders. If there are violations in a country, the international community is rightly interested,” says Robinson, the former President of Ireland.

But one of the questions that would have been debated at the UN last year if the attacks of September 11 had not happened, and this year if the issues of “terrorism” and Iraq had not intruded, is just how interested the international community should be, and how actively it should engage itself, in the affairs of UN member states. The unilateral actions threatened by the Bush Administration against Baghdad go a long way to vindicate the worst fears of all who think that national sovereignty is too important to be risked for humanitarian intervention that can mask selfish interests. That is why, when the Canadian government sponsored an international commission on “The Responsibility to Protect” last year, it wisely concluded that such interventions should be considered only as a final option–and with full multilateral support, such as a mandate from the Security Council.

In contrast, Bush announced his expedient commitment to multilateralism–as long as it works against Iraq–while he conducts a global diplomatic war of attrition against the International Criminal Court. Robinson, defiant to the last, sees the court as “an extraordinary step forward…a way of symbolizing that we are going to end impunity for egregious human rights violations.”

While US lobbying may have removed Robinson, the Bush Administration has almost certainly not achieved its longer-term aim of muzzling criticisms of its human rights record. Her replacement, Sergio Vieira de Mello, said on his first day, “There has been a change, not of regime; there has been a change of person.” Referring to the web of international conventions of which he has become the UN’s custodian, he added, “these commitments have been accepted voluntarily by most States. The violation of these commitments should always be seen as an affront to all and must not be tolerated.” He did not mention an exception for the United States.

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