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Why the UN was in trouble from the start
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
Thus the fundamental contradiction of modern internationalism: It seeks to balance the rights of the state with those of the individual, but it often can’t. Eleanor Roosevelt understood this all too well, and she viewed the Universal Declaration as a necessary counterbalance to the UN’s interest in the preservation of sovereignty and stability. A 1947 political cartoon showed the former First Lady as a schoolteacher, telling her students—the other members of the declaration’s drafting committee—“Now, children, all together: ‘The rights of the individual are above the rights of the state.’”
But isn’t so. Increasingly in recent years, internationalists have stressed the latter at the expense of the former—inevitably to the detriment of the principle of human rights. The UN’s expression of concern can rarely be more than rhetoric. Today Libya chairs the UN’s Commission on Human Rights. The UN recognizes Libya and its government as sovereign and legitimate, and so investigations of matters from cases of torture and mass murder to extralegal confinement of dissidents are headed by Ambassador Najat Al-Hajjaji, a woman picked by CoI. Muammar al-Qaddafi.
As a result, nations and coalitions constantly have to work around the UN. It happened when the United States and Great Britain established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in 1991 to stop Saddam Hussein’s attacks on the Kurdish population there. It happened when NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic to abandon his policy of “ethnic cleansing” of Albanians and Kosovars in 1999. It happened when Israel bombed Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981, preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. And it happened when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 to overthrow Pol Pot, a man responsible for the death of as many as two million of his own citizens. Surely, if the principles of sovereignty and legitimacy hadn’t been disregarded, the terrors of this world would be more terrible still.
Where does all this leave the United States? In something of a bind. In many ways the legacy of Westphalia stands in contrast with that of the Founders, who, in adopting the Declaration of Independence, affirmed that governments are created to secure the rights of humankind, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Therefore, if a government suppresses the rights of its citizens, it loses its legitimacy. “A Prince,” states the Declaration of Independence, “whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
From this perspective, regardless of what the UN Charter stipulates, authoritarian regimes that treat their people like chattel are not legitimate governments. And while their forceful removal may not always be prudent or practical, it is praiseworthy if it brings in a morally legitimate authority. This is an extreme position, to be sure, and it has always had its opponents. In recent decades, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, many have come to the conclusion that the United States and its government could no longer be trusted to do the right thing.
Can America be trusted today to establish morally legitimate governments in countries it subdues? Most human-rights advocates remain skeptical, pointing to the twentieth century, when, for reasons ranging from cultural chauvinism and economic self-interest to Cold War panic, the United States found itself making very unsavory friends. Moreover, if a government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, then it follows logically that no one can justly overthrow that government except by the consent of the governed. Getting the consent of an oppressed population may be impossible, of course, but without it any coup always has a taint of the arbitrary.
There are grounds for optimism though. Since Vietnam, American Presidents have been more alert to the cause of human rights. After the United States invaded Grenada in 1983, the communist junta of Hudson Austin and Bernard Gourd was replaced by a government that allowed a free press and opposition parties to flourish. The same held true in Panama following the U.S. invasion in 1989. Today Panama has an independent judiciary, an opposition press, and several vigorous political parties; executive power has changed hands two times, peacefully and constitutionally.
In Haiti, where the U.S. threat of invasion in 1994 forced out the military dictatorship of Gen. Raoul Cedras, the picture is murkier. Political violence is common and government corruption is rampant, but there are opposition parties and an opposition press. Most impressive, various members of the Haitian judiciary have been willing to stand up to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ruling against his government on important issues. Free institutions, fragile as they may be, are now stronger as a direct result of American intervention. In Afghanistan there are already signs of hope: women no longer compelled to wear veils, families free to attend movies, girls able to go to school, and democratic elections scheduled for next year.