February 5, 2003

Seeking U.N. Legitimacy

By: James N. Markels

Recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell made his presentation to the United Nations Security Council, hoping to convince its member nations that Iraq has deliberately violated the terms of Resolution 1441, which directed Iraq to fully comply with U.N. weapons inspectors and prove that all weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed or else face military conflict. Oddly enough, just one week earlier Iraq had been named President to the U.N. Committee on Disarmament, which deals with the removal of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons, including terrorist access to such weapons–in other words, exactly what Iraq itself was being investigated for and accused of flouting.

A joke? No. Just business as usual at the U.N. See, the presidency position of the Disarmament Committee cycles in alphabetical order each month, just like in most other U.N. committees, promoting the egalitarian ideal that every nation is to be considered equally. The problem is, the whole reason why Powell was before the Security Council in the first place was because of the presumption that U.N. backing of military force against Iraq grants the action more legitimacy that if the United States simply took on Iraq by itself without bothering to get anyone else’s input. But isn’t the fact that the U.N. considers Iraq just as fit to head the Disarmament Committee as any other nation a good indication that the U.N. has little moral authority to provide legitimacy in the first place? Hiring a fox to guard your henhouse isn’t the way to prove your commitment to chickens, after all.

For instance, the U.N. Charter commands that the organization be “based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members,” which is how you get the alphabetical cycling of committee presidents. But the Charter also seeks to “promot[e] and encourag[e] respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” One would think that an organization like the U.N., born from the ashes of a world war initiated by totalitarian nations bent on conquest, would recognize that sovereign equality is a nice ideal, but tolerance of oppression is the graver threat to peace. On the contrary, today’s U.N. would have had no problems with putting 1937’s Germany at the head of the Security Council or any other committee–so long as the first letter of its name came up next.

As an example, consider the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a decent enough attempt, albeit contradictory in places, but the fact that the Declaration was drafted seems to indicate that the U.N. took its charge to promote human rights seriously. But what’s the use of such a Declaration if the rights it lists are ignored? China’s Constitution proclaims that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.” Yeah, right. Does anybody believe that China honors such freedoms or has moral legitimacy in such matters? Then how does the U.N. gain legitimacy behind its Declaration, which enshrines the “right to freedom of opinion and expression,” when China is a member of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights? Or when Libya, another famed oppressive regime, has just been voted President of that Commission? It doesn’t.

The premise of the U.N.’s legitimacy is that the moral whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, the voice of more nations carries more moral weight than the voice of fewer nations. But morality doesn’t work that way. Oppressive nations don’t become more morally palatable just because more of them are allowed to vote on something, nor do the resolutions they vote upon become more moral just because more oppressive nations favored them. In fact, I’d think that most any course of action that garnered the most favor amongst such nations would be one worth scrapping.

Even more important, democratic nations and ideals don’t become more legitimate by association with oppressive regimes either. When China is put on equal footing with the United States on the Human Rights Commission, it reflects more poorly on us and the Declaration than it reflects well on them. And when other oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Pakistan, and Cameroon all get seats on the Commission, it forces one to the conclusion that the U.N.’s drive for inclusion has gone too far, to the point where the other ideals it espouses mean practically nothing. By envisioning oppressive and free countries equally, the U.N. subverts its own goal to combat oppression and promote peace.

Some worry that excluding the oppressive nations would only lead to trouble, but it seems more likely that some form of exclusion is a crucial tool toward encouraging change. If the only way countries like China and Saudi Arabia get to be on the Human Rights Commission is to actually take steps to respect those rights, just like membership to the World Trade Organization requires some minimum of trade liberalization, then oppressive regimes have an added reason to change policies. China wanted to be on the WTO badly enough to open up its borders to more trade, but what has putting China on the Human Rights Commission done to change the way Chinese citizens are treated?

If the Security Council votes in favor of military action against Iraq in the coming weeks, we should ask ourselves whether the votes of Syria, Russia, China, Pakistan, and Angola really signify that what we are doing is the “right thing.” In contrast, would their votes against military action really indicate that we would be doing the “wrong thing?” The better source for legitimacy, if any, came from Powell’s own speech rather than from the audience that heard it.