Waking up to UN Reform

Politics | International | Familiarity
I wanted to start the new year if with a modest proposal. But it would be immodest without some proper background. The subject for today is UN Reform, because here at Civilities we occasionally distract ourselves from the mechanics of media structures to find out how they apply in the real world, and furthermore whether there is any course of action we might take to better mankind.

The New York Times begins the year by giving an update on such a modest proposal: Officials at U.N. Seek Fast Action on Rights Panel. Paraphrasing the article, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan explains thus: some countries participate “not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others” with the consequence being that “a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.” The position of the United States, according to Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Kristen Silverberg, is “to improve the membership criteria so that countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan were not eligible.”

Sounds good. The Times article online does not provide any background links. Of the few blogs which comment on the story, the only one I found which adds any substance is a post from Duncan Hollis, an assistant professor at the University of Temple Law School. He gamely observes: “we are still faced with the age-old problem of human rights law — how can states participate in the creation of generally applicable rules and procedures when each state is most concerned with ensuring such rules and procedures do not require unwanted changes to its own activities.”

I needed some more background. I’ve had an interest in the plight of jailed Chinese dissidents; many years ago I was moved by Tina Rosenberg’s profile of John Kamm in the New York Times Magazine. Kamm works to document and petition the release of political prisoners in China through the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation. My own small contributions to the cause hardly warrant Kamm’s heartfelt letters of gratitude, but I look forward to the quarterly newsletters.

Dui Hua’s fall issue of their newsletter Dialogue provided a rough summary of the efforts over the past year of UN reform. As the 61st Comission on Human Rights (CHR) was underway last March, Annan had assembled his reform proposals in a report entitled In Larger Freedom. This included a proposal to abolish the Commission on Human Rights altogether. It would be replaced with Human Rights Council, a permanent body in session year-round, reporting directly to the General Assembly. Some fundamental changes would be made to how countries our selected– in that it wouldn’t be filled with countries looking to protect themselves from scrutiny. The assessment from Business Week was that “Many of the recommendations in the breathtakingly broad reform package that Annan unveiled on Mar. 21 could almost have been written by the White House.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The U.S. Ambassador,widely respected former Senator John C. Danforth, had resigned at the start of 2005, after only six months in the position– frustrated with both the U.N. and the administration (according to NBC). The Bush Administration chose not to pick a successor who would quietly and efficiently work with the landmark reforms; instead they picked a nominee sure to draw out a political fight, John Bolton. The charade worked; a June 15th Wall Street Journal editorial declared “The real reformer is John Bolton, not Kofi Annan” (it did not help Annan that his son was directly implicated in the Oil-For-Food scandal).

What Bolton ended up reforming, by the time he was installed as Ambassador in an August recess appointment, was the reform package itself– Dialogue “an astonishing 700 changes to the draft proposal, including changes to articles that the US had previously supported.” (See also this Washington Post article from August 25th) The UK Guardian editorialized “the American notion of reform looks more like a settling of scores than an attempt to improve its workings.”

The September UN World Summit ultimately came to a new agreement on reform, but as Dialogue noted, “many of the sweeping changes recommended by Kofi Annan had been abandoned.” A September 14th New York Times editorial, The Lost U.N. Summit Meeting, explained some of the sticking points: “when Washington challenged the right of the secretary general to set specific development goals, others then contested his right to set standards for management or human rights.” In their post-summit editorial Wall Street Journal praised Bolton’s machinations, but conceded: “On the other hand, the diplomatic price the U.S. paid for a no-harm-done outcome was a no-reform result.”

So much for the assessment three months prior about who the real reformer was. In the ensuing months, the Citizens for Global Solutions report that “Despite the need for such a mechanism and clear, bipartisan consensus that the UN’s human rights mechanisms should be reformed in this direction, the U.S. has been largely absent from HRC negotiations. Ambassador Bolton has not attended any of the high-level discussions about the council although all other participating nations have sent their permanent representatives.”

(Citizens for Global Solutions is the merger of the Campaign for UN Reform and the World Federalist Association– at whose conference in 1994 Ambassador Bolton had uttered his now-notorious dismissal of ten stories at the UN Secretary building.)

There is still some good work being done. Ten years of careful negotiations were able to bring Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, to China last month, in the the first such official mission. What he reported— the extent of torture in the justice system, and the lack of protections against it– is not news to human rights observers, but it is expected to be reported to the CHR come March. That or it’s replacement.

Where do we go from here?

The official page at the UN website for reform has not been updated in over a year; the section on the CHR has only two documents. A better resouces is the website ReformTheUN.org, a project of the World Federalist Movement – Institute for Global Policy (which has no connection, philosophically or otherwise, with the conservative American Federalist Society). A particularly helpful document is the Member State Positions on the Human Rights Council.

That’s a lot of technicalities. There’s no one sexy issue — no bracelet to wear to massage the discredited Commission into an effective Council. But if every NGO that works on human rights is lining up behind this, it’s likely a big step in the right direction.

Still, I wonder if I might wake up any differently if the reformed Human Rights Council were to com. Or if Yang Jianli, alone and numb in a Beijing prison cell, half a world away from his family, my neighbors, would wake up any differently. That promise returns me to my radical idea– the modest proposal that led to me investigate this over the last couple of days. I’ll post that tomorrow.