When I interviewed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently, I was curious to hear what he would say about U.S. congressional criticism that the United Nations has become hijacked by totalitarian regimes.
On Thursday, Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a measure sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., that would, among other things, make U.S. contributions to the United Nations voluntary.
Among the examples of outrageous U.N. practices cited by the bill’s sponsors:
• Earlier this year, North Korea, which consistently violates U.N. Security Council resolutions on its secret nuclear weapons program, was appointed head of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament.
• In November 2010, Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive, was elected as a board member of U.N. Women, the agency in charge of ending discrimination against women.
• In June 2010, Cuba, where there are no free elections and peaceful oppositionists are jailed for circulating the Human Rights Declaration, was named vice chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
• In April 2010, Iran, where women — but not men — who commit adultery are sentenced to death by stoning, was elected to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.
• Almost half of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s resolutions last year were condemnations of Israel’s rights abuses, without any similar condemnations of the Palestinian terrorist rockets, bombings and other abuses that triggered Israel’s actions.
• In the past decade, three U.N. Conferences on Racism, known as “Durban” conferences, have turned into “anti-American, anti-Semitic hate fests,” a statement by the bill’s sponsors says.
The proposed legislation would prohibit U.S. contributions to the U.N. Human Rights Council, as well as to the Durban conferences. The Obama administration has threatened to veto it.
“I am deeply concerned by all these actions by some members of Congress to cut funding to the United Nations,” Ban told me. “We are promoting peace, security and development. We need the strong support from the United States.”
The United States is the biggest single U.N. donor, accounting for 22 percent of the U.N. regular budget, and 27 percent of the U.N. peace-keeping budget.
But aren’t the bill’s sponsors right when they point out that it’s ridiculous to have Cuba in the Human Rights Council, or Saudi Arabia in the U.N. women’s rights body? I asked Ban.
He said that “while there has been some criticism” of the Human Rights Council, it has recently made “a great contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights” with its actions on Libya, Syria and other countries.
Some key independent human rights groups agree with that assessment. Human Rights Watch, an independent advocacy group, concluded in a recent report that, over the past year, the U.N. rights monitoring group has made “notable progress.” While it “continued to focus disproportionately” on Israel, the council started investigations into abuses by Libya, Syria and Cote d’Ivoire, and appointed an expert to investigate human rights in Iran, it said.
Asked about the proposed U.S. legislation, Human Rights Watch global advocacy director Peggy Hicks told me, “It’s dangerous and counterproductive. There is a strong track record showing that when the United States is at the table, we can get better results than boycotting, or leaving things to others.”
My opinion: I agree with the diagnosis that the United Nations often acts as a mutual protection society by the world’s worst human rights abusers. Dictatorships like Cuba, North Korea or Iran routinely help other countries get elected to U.N. economic or social committees, in exchange for their support to get elected at U.N. human rights-related panels, where they can stop investigations against them.
But the cure offered by the House Republicans’ bill would make things even worse. Other ways to press the United Nations to adhere to its own human rights principles, including diplomatic efforts to push emerging powers such as Brazil, South Africa and India to embrace a pro-human rights agenda instead of supporting tyrants, would make more sense than U.S. measures that would give rights abusers a free ride at the United Nations, and make Washington look like the outcast.