On Dec= 10, 1948, the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the document in which all nations committed themselves to respect certain inalienable rights of all people. According to the UN, Dec. 10—Human Rights Day—is dedicated to celebrating the Declaration, which has become the foundation for a series of wide-ranging human rights covenants adopted since then. The date serves as a reminder for those who are committed to human rights to exert renewed efforts to achieve the goals laid out in the Declaration.
Unfortunately, despite the many accomplishments of the UN over the years, its member states have failed to fulfill its own mandate of ensuring respect for the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration. While the recent focus has been on the failure of the Security Council to stop the genocide in Darfur, the problems are perhaps most evident at the UN's Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the only UN body charged with monitoring and condemning human rights violators in its annual meetings in Geneva. Each year, some of the worst human rights abusers escape censure. Last year, the Commission failed to pass resolutions relating to China, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia, which are just a few of the world's most repressive regimes according to Freedom House's annual survey of freedom in the world.
Indeed, all of these countries enjoy membership on the Commission, along with non-democratic Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Pakistan, Swaziland, Togo, as well as Russia, which continues to perpetrate atrocities against civilians in Chechnya without sanction. Of the 53 member states of the Commission, some 14—over one quarter—are rated Not Free by Freedom House. This is not a coincidence; it is a deliberate political strategy. Some of the worst violators of human rights join the Commission—and join together—to prevent their own governments from being a target of condemnatory resolutions.
But recently, there has been a glimmer of hope that things could change at the UN, and even at the Commission. In the last four years, the UN's democracies have pledged to create a permanent caucus. The idea of a UN Democracy Caucus emerged out of the Communities of Democracies process (CD), initiated under the leadership of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and continued under the Bush administration. Every two years, the Foreign Ministers of over 100 democratic and democratizing countries meet to discuss and commit themselves to actions to promote and strengthen democracy around the world. At the meetings in Warsaw and Seoul, the countries pledged to work together in regional and international bodies to advance democratic principles and practices.
This past September, the government of Chile, which is to hold the next CD meeting in Santiago in May 2005, joined with other key nations to take steps to make that pledge into a reality when it announced the official formation of a UN Democracy Caucus "to ensure timely consultations and consensus building on key issues related to democracy and human rights matters at the United Nations." In recent years, a number of democracies have pushed for membership on the Commission on Human Rights. They now form a solid majority which is well positioned to form a formidable bloc against the well coordinated, but disproportionately powerful group of dictatorships in upcoming meetings in Geneva.
Unfortunately, the potential of this new initiative to reform and strengthen the UN was ignored in the recently released report by a high-level panel commissioned by Secretary General Kofi Annan. The panel thoroughly reviewed the Commission's current problems and its impact on the legitimacy of the UN, but its solution was problematic. It recommended that all UN states be members of the Commission on Human Rights, and in doing so, rejected a long-standing recommendation from the international human rights community that reasonable criteria be applied for Commission membership. (Such criteria would include allowing CHR representatives into member countries to investigate human rights abuses if necessary, and barring those countries deemed by the international community to have carried out campaigns of ethnic cleansing or genocide.)
Annan has been outspoken in the past about his support for democracy and human rights as a core element of the work of the UN. On this day, as we recommit ourselves to work towards the realization of the principles contained in the Universal Declaration, the member states and leadership of the United Nations should recognize that the time has come for a permanent UN democracy caucus. Dictatorships should no longer be allowed to manipulate UN processes to avoid legitimate criticism. The two billion people that live under Not Free regimes, and represent countless victims of ongoing human rights abuses, depend on it.
Jennifer Windsor is the Executive Director of Freedom House. This column was written in collaboration with Michael Goldfarb, Freedom House Senior Press Officer.