Thursday, September 18, 2008

how the West was lost

Yesterday from The Guardian came this excellent piece about the West effectively losing control of the UN.

There are a couple of failures at play here.
1. The loss of capacity by the West to use the Security Council to take action on specific country cases, like Burma and Zimbabwe.
2. The failure to entrench "Western values" -- liberties and human rights, etc. -- in UN institutions.

Regarding the first failure, one problem is that, particularly in the Bush years, efforts have been undertaken to expand the UN Security Council's role beyond what the UN Charter calls for, and the Russians and Chinese, with developing country help, have had the power to rebuff these efforts. On issues like Zimbabwe and Burma, internal matters that are not threats to international peace and security, Council action is not appropriate nor helpful. It politicizes the Council and sets dangerous precedent.
The other problem is that we're pining for good old days that didn't exist. The mid-1990s, when the US had enormous power following the collapse of the Soviet Union, were an anomaly. The Council has been deadlocked on many if not most important world issues pretty much since its inception, at least when great powers' interests are involved, which is most of the time. We should not be surprised the Council couldn't do anything on Georgia: two great powers had mutually irreconcilable interests in the region. The Council hasn't been able to issue so much as a statement to the press on the situation in Israel/Palestine in years.

The second failure the article mentions -- the loss of norm-determining power in UN bodies -- is more insidious, but not surprising. The US voted against the creation of the new Human Rights Council for a reason: it knew it would be outnumbered. Part of the problem is the rift between the US and EU, particularly on human rights (the US not exercising its clout at the Human Rights Council is a major reason for Western ineffectiveness there), but at the Security Council the West still votes pretty much as a bloc. The issue instead is a developing country backlash against the politicization of human rights to target countries for political purposes, which Russia and China exploit (and, I rather suspect, morally agree with as well). If we're going to go after internal matters like Zimbabwe, but leave autocratic states that invade their neighbors like Ethiopia alone because they're our allies, we can pretty much expect a backlash, and that's what we've gotten. Moreover, the attempt to "shame" countries on human rights is becoming increasingly unpopular, which is not surprising either because it ends up pitting human rights against the nationalism of the countries in question, and nationalism will always win. At the end of the day, country-specific human rights resolutions -- the benchmark by which the West measures success in the field of international human rights -- are more trouble than they're worth. They damage the cause of human rights more than they damage the human rights abusers of the world. If you don't think so, then wait 'til the UN Human Rights Commissioner starts ripping into Western newspapers for publishing comments critical of Islam. Does it rankle you? Yes. Does it make you mad and distrustful of international human rights machinery? Yes. Congratulations, now you know how two thirds of the world feels.

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