When President Obama took over from George W. Bush, many European diplomats and human-rights activists were energized. They hoped the so-called Obama effect would lead to America’s championing a new golden era for international human rights as it re-engaged with the United Nations and brought obstructionist countries —supposedly alienated by the Bush administration’s arrogance — back to the path of progress. But these idealists have had a rude awakening: Under Obama, things have taken a turn for the worse.
The Bush administration was cool toward the U.N. human-rights structure for a simple reason: It did not want to confer legitimacy on a system that rogue states and their supporters have turned into an instrument of tyranny. Accordingly, the U.S. decided to boycott the U.N.’s discredited Human Rights Council, where China, Russia, and various Islamic states have waged war on freedom of expression and shielded each other from criticism and scrutiny.
The Obama administration, by contrast, apparently believes that participation and dialogue in itself is more important than the outcome.
The latest demonstration of American impotence at the U.N. came on July 28, when the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming that clean water and sanitation is a human right to be provided by government. The U.S. timidly abstained rather than vote against the measure. Why should America be afraid to state that human rights are meant to protect individuals from tyrannical governments, not to give governments greater power over their citizens’ lives by monopolizing essential commodities?
While the nonbinding resolution might easily be dismissed as “nonsense upon stilts” (in the phrase of Jeremy Bentham), it marks yet another milestone in the decline of the influence of democracies at the U.N. This decline has been accelerated by the Obama administration’s refusal to confront countries such as Russia, Pakistan, and China, which dominate the Human Rights Council. The U.S. has generally refrained from criticizing the worst human-rights violators, and was also unable to prevent Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya from becoming a member of the council.
The Obama administration has also accepted seemingly harmless compromises that actually chip away at human rights. The best example came in October 2009, when the U.S. and Egypt cosponsored a resolution on freedom of speech that condemned “negative religious stereotyping.” This is not one of the permissible restrictions on free speech under international human-rights law, so it suggests a protection of religions and religious symbols. That very interpretation was emphasized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which declared that “negative stereotyping or defamation of religions was a modern expression of religious hatred and xenophobia. This spread not only to individuals but to religions and belief systems.” The U.S.-Egypt resolution may aid Cairo in its efforts to repress dissidents such as the blogger Kareem, who has been imprisoned for four years for “insulting Islam.”
America’s current coddling of tyrants at the U.N. stands in sharp contrast to the days when President Reagan infuriated Fidel Castro and his cronies by appointing former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares to serve as U.S. ambassador to the (now-defunct) U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Obama’s approach is worryingly similar to that of European countries, many of which voted for the water-and-sanitation resolution. These countries long ago accepted their dwindling influence in Geneva and New York, and they offer little hope of change.
To Americans, who are protected by the freedoms of the U.S. Constitution rather than by international human-rights conventions, the alarming developments at the U.N. may seem irrelevant. But despite the gross failures of the U.N. human-rights system, the language of international human rights still holds sway in many parts of the world. Governments, NGOs, activists, academics, and journalists often attach great weight to human-rights developments at the world body. Therefore, those who are able to shape the meaning of human rights have a powerful tool to advance political agendas that are quite opposed to individual freedom and protection against tyranny.
Already, human-rights language has started to degenerate into Newspeak where tolerance means censorship and freedom means more government. If this continues unopposed, America will find it increasingly difficult to advance the values of life, liberty, and property under the banner of human rights. Because to a German, an Indonesian, or a Kenyan, human rights is just as likely to mean the right to be given water and socialized medicine and to repress discussion with “hate speech” laws.
If the U.S. wants to be taken seriously as the leader of the free world, it must champion the cause of freedom at the U.N. by actively leading a coalition of democracies, confronting authoritarians, and shaming the spoilers. Alternatively, the U.S. could decide that human rights are best championed outside the U.N. and build a credible alternative. But sitting on the fence is tantamount to surrender.