Vaclav Havel on the UN Human Rights Council:

Few people have greater moral authority to write about human rights issues than Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic. In the 1970s and 80s, he led the dissident movement in then-communist Czechoslovakia, spending several years in prison under brutal conditions. Later, as president, he helped manage Eastern Europe's most successful transition to democracy and free markets. As a bonus, Havel also wrote The Power of the Powerless, perhaps the best book on how repression operates in a totalitarian state. Thus, it's worth paying attention to his recent New York Times op ed criticizing the United Nations Human Rights Council:

Governments seem to have forgotten the commitment made only three short years ago to create an organization able to protect victims and confront human rights abuses wherever they occur.

An essential precondition was better membership. The council's precursor, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was folded in 2006 mainly because it had, for too long, allowed gross violators of human rights like Sudan and Zimbabwe to block action on their own abuses.

The council was supposed to be different. For the first time, countries agreed to take human rights records into account when voting for the council's members, and those member-states that failed to, in the words of the founding resolution, "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" would find themselves up for review and their seats endangered. For victims of human rights abuses and advocates for human rights worldwide, the reforms offered the hope of a credible and effective body.

Now, it seems, principle has given way to expediency. Governments have resumed trading votes for membership in various other United Nations bodies, putting political considerations ahead of human rights. The absence of competition suggests that states that care about human rights simply don't care enough. Latin America, a region of flourishing democracies, has allowed Cuba to bid to renew its membership. Asian countries have unconditionally endorsed the five candidates running for their region's five seats — among them, China and Saudi Arabia.

Havel is absolutely right to criticize the UN for electing egregious human rights abusers to the Council. Not only does the Council fail to protect human rights, it actually promotes repression by passing resolutions such as the recent one calling for censorship of speech that "defames" religion.

The difficulty here goes deeper than the moral failings of individual states that "don't care enough," highlighted by Havel. The fundamental problem with the Council - and the entire UN system - is structural. Most of the UN's member states are either oppressive dictatorships themselves or dubious quasi-democracies - states like Venezuela and Russia that retain some democratic processes but also routinely resort to repression against political opponents. Such governments have an obvious interest in blocking the creation of a UN body that might actually curb their abuses - especially if those abuses help their governments stay in power by crushing opposition movements. Havel rightly criticizes democratic states for not doing more to oppose the election of authoritarian human rights abusers to the Council. But there are limits to how much democracies can do to influence UNHRC elections so long as the authoritarians and pseudo-democrats continue to outnumber them. As long as the UN's membership remains as it is, expecting the UN to create a human rights body that actually protects human rights is much like expecting a committee of foxes to guard a henhouse against themselves.

This structural flaw of the UN Human Rights Council is just one facet of the more general problem of the influence of repressive nondemocratic regimes on international human rights law. As John McGinnis and I discuss in this forthcoming article, that influence is broad and pervasive. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, generally considered the most important international human rights treaty, contains repression-justifying provisions inserted at the behest of totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union.

McGinnis and I argue that this structural shortcoming of international human rights law should lead us to be wary of allowing that law to override the domestic law of liberal democracies. We must also be realistic about the very low likelihood that international human rights law will do much to curb repression in authoritarian states anytime soon.

rosetta's stones:
Is the UN still around? Who knew?
5.13.2009 5:37pm
Are human rights abusers simply not being excluded from the Council or are they affirmatively seeking spots on the Council to protect themselves?
5.13.2009 5:46pm
Ilya Somin:
Are human rights abusers simply not being excluded from the Council or are they affirmatively seeking spots on the Council to protect themselves?

Probably some of both. In the end, however, the effect is the same.
5.13.2009 5:54pm
I think what is occuring here with human rights, is why we should be extremely cautious about giving international organizations authority of thier own. We don't want to be bound by a decision contrary to our constitution. Its certainly not limited to human rights law either.

The UN wants to control the internet, but can we trust that it wont use its control in a manner that threatens free speech? I know of no nation that has stronger freedom of speech protections than the US (though we have room for improvement too). Could the UN decide that content critical of religion may be taken down off the internet by the governing UN body? None of the advocates of moving control to the UN can identify any case where the US has acted wrongly in its administration, so why is it so important that they get control?
5.13.2009 6:06pm
geokstr (mail):

Havel is absolutely right to criticize the UN for electing egregious human rights abusers to the Council.

You are not going to endear yourself with the multiculti crowd around here nor the friends of jihad either with talk like that.

After all, there've been lots of comments here about who are we anyway to say what so-called "human rights" are for other nations. Each must be judged strictly in the context of their own customs, mores, religions and cultures, right? If some women willingly choose to be enslaved, so what? Being pro-choice is a basic human right, after all.

In the threads on SSM and the "slippery slope" as it relates to Muslims, there has actually been very little objection to the "right" to polygyny and child marriages from proponents, and indeed even some tacit acceptance of both.
5.13.2009 6:35pm
Vaclav Havel, like Marcus Garvey, is a national hero who knows how to enjoy a good drink!

I heard the night he was first elected, he visited all the town halls in the area, and graciously accepted a drink at each!

Is Barack still smoking cigarettes? How about the sticky-icky?
5.13.2009 7:14pm
One difference between Cuba and other places like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria, is that Castro has been willing to admit his mistakes, and willing to reform. The others are unapologetic and unreflective.

Castro has acknowledged that he should have studied more economics. That he shouldn't have publicly executed Batista collaborators. That he shouldn't have barred believers from joining the Party. That he should have known that quarantining gays during the AIDS crisis would lead to all sorts of abuses. That he shouldn't have suggested, in the words he did, to Khruschhev to nuke the US. That he shouldn't have trusted the Russians.

Castro knows how to enjoy a good cigar!
5.13.2009 7:28pm
dmv (www):
Ok, so, I completely (well, not completely, but strongly) disagree with your apparently negative, or generally skeptical view of the UDHR. I very much believe in the project of international human rights law.

That said, the HRC is disappointing. States have, and do, use it as a platform for playing their own games, not for actually attempting to protect human rights. That was happening at the very beginning, too, right from the drafting of the documents, there's no doubt about it.

But this, by the way, is actually one reason why the U.S.'s disengagement from internationalism is so dangerous. I'm writing a paper about one of the rights enumerated in the UDHR and ICCPR and how it has developed from 1940 until now. I'll just say this, without getting into details: U.S. presence, involvement, argument, and, again, presence were vital. We provided the key counterweight to the Soviet Union's vision of the right in question. Maybe it was all just Cold War politics. But I wonder what the shape of the right would be in the text, or how the understanding of it would have developed, had we not strenuously and actively taken a position on it, through the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I don't think we should just go along with what the world decides. But if we don't stay engaged, our particular perspective tends to get lost. And maintaining our distance from the international human rights law community, scorning and mocking it from afar, will make it so much easier for others to just ignore the views we cherish. (I'm not suggesting that you, Ilya, are mocking or scorning from afar. That part is more or less directed at others here.)
5.13.2009 7:48pm
Steven Den Beste (www):
The International Criminal Court will have exactly the same problem; it's just too new right now for the rot to have set in.
5.13.2009 7:55pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
If Asia is guaranteed 5 slots at the table who are they going to choose that doesn't have serious problems, especially that could get support from any of the other countries?

And especially if a country is not elgible twice in a row. I could see filling those seats reasonably once, maybe even twice, but there would still be major pressure to not put the first batch back in.
5.13.2009 9:22pm

The United Nations was originally envisioned as a United States of the world by those who created it and were thus heavily involved in its early days. The problem is that the individual States that made up the United States were themselves democracies and those nations which make up the United Nations largely are not.

Until democracy within the Nations themselves is the price of admission to the United Nations, or a competing organization emerges with such a requirement, that for which you so faithfully labor will not be achieved, whatever the level of involvement of Democratic states.
5.13.2009 10:33pm
On a side note, Havel is my hero. I have a framed photograph of him addressing Congress (from Time magazine, of all places) right here on my wall.
5.13.2009 10:34pm
dmv (www):

So we may as well not even bother? That's a sad view of the world.
5.13.2009 11:46pm

"So we may as well not even bother? That's a sad view of the world."

On the contrary, a United Democracies would be a titanic force for good on several levels. Let's work together to establish one instead of sniping at one another within the Democracies that exist over minor differences.
5.13.2009 11:54pm

Those who walked out on Ahmedijad recently might serve as prime recruits...
5.13.2009 11:57pm

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