United Nations redux?

Posted: May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Think back to March 2003. The United States and Great Britain were feverishly maneuvering to secure a United Nations resolution authorizing war with Iraq. The French were just as busily working to undermine any such resolution. Kofi Annan, secretary general of the U.N., opined that any hostilities undertaken without U.N. sanction would lack moral legitimacy. And American liberals like Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., let it be known that they would wholeheartedly support the war only if the Security Council gave authorization.

How does this U.N. worship look two months later?

Surely the horror coalition forces have uncovered: the mass graves, systematic torture and utter depravity practiced by Saddam justifies the war all by itself. Certainly the Iraqi people appear to think so. Combine that with the fact the United States and Britain were enforcing previous U.N. resolutions (you know, the ones that required Iraq to cooperate with weapons inspections or face dire consequences), and you've got an airtight case, even by the squishy standards of so-called "international law."

But the members of the Security Council did not see it that way -- because the French threatened a veto. That's how it works at the United Nations. Why then do so many invest the body with so much moral authority?

The current chair of the United Nation's Commission on Human Rights is Libya. U.N. proponents point out that the chairmanship rotates, so that all countries may have a turn. But that's part of the problem. All nations are not equally deserving to chair or even to serve on a human rights commission. Only those who already respect human rights at home should be eligible. (The United States was kicked off the commission in 2001 but was later reinstated.)

Other members of the commission are Algeria, Zimbabwe, China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Together they form what Human Rights Watch calls an "abusers club" to block any serious resolutions against the true human rights violators of the world. Freedom House has just issued a report titled "The Most Repressive Regimes in the World" (www.freedomhouse.org), and it turns out that six of them sit on the U.N. Human Rights Commission (China, Cuba, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria).

There are two countries the U.N. Commission on Human Rights has no trouble condemning -- the United States and Israel. During the war with Iraq, when the United States was discovering mass graves and other atrocities, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, expressed his deep worry over "serious breaches to the Geneva Convention" by, you guessed it, the United States. During that same period, the commission passed a number of resolutions condemning Israel.

Further, we've discovered from documents in Baghdad that the United Nations itself enjoyed a fairly tidy profit from the "oil for food" program, skimming a 2.2 percent commission off every barrel of Iraqi oil sold. Profits to the United Nations are estimated to be in the neighborhood of $1 billion. A French bank was brought in to manage it all, and French and Russian companies seem to have been given the contracts to provide food and medicine.

Conservatives have always disdained the United Nations, but it would be quixotic to attempt to withdraw from it altogether. Too much trouble for what would be, for the most part, psychic satisfactions. But we can be more robust in our willingness to challenge the U.N.'s moral authority. When it comes to fighting worldwide epidemics, feeding the poor and speeding development, the United Nations certainly should have a role. When a venue is required for emergency talks between nations, might as well use the lovely and expensive spread on the East River. But when matters of national interest, war and peace, or human rights are at issue, the United Nations should have no role at all.