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The UN's Human Rights Credibility Gap on Syria

The United Nations seems ceaselessly determined to discredit itself.

What better evidence could you find than its choice last week for rapporteur of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization?

The committee’s job is to monitor human rights in the world’s 16 “non-self-governing territories” such as the Falklands, Guam, and the Western Sahara. And its choice for reappointment as rapporteur: Syria, that bastion of human rights.

Remember, it was the very same United Nations that days earlier had said more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began two years ago. At least 2 million Syrians are now homeless, in many cases because the army destroyed their homes.

Typhoid and hepatitis are ripping through the country, and for most people health care is not readily available. At least 1 million Syrians have no reliable source of food.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, is calling for a war-crimes investigation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because, she said, he is committing “crimes against humanity.” In her view, in fact, Assad should be sent directly to the International Criminal Court.

But as the decolonization committee voted to elect Bashar Jaafari, a career Syrian diplomat, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon watched passively and didn’t say a word.

“The UN is helping the Assad regime portray itself as a UN human-rights arbiter,” said Hillel Neuer, director of UN Watch, a human-rights group. “That’s indefensible and an insult to Syria’s victims.”

But in fact, Syria has good company on the committee: Iran, Ethiopia, China, and Venezuela. Some of these same cruel dictatorships also sit on the UN Human Rights Council. Among the council’s most-recently elected members is Pakistan, home to rampant incest and a government unwilling to prosecute the perpetrators, as Equality Now, a New York based human-rights group, reported this week (pdf). Others elected in the last three years include Nigeria, China, Angola, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

That’s the problem with using the UN to address human-rights problems. Every single state in the world, even the most reprehensible, is an equal member. The United Nations Charter, signed 68 years ago, enshrines as a world principle “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” and “equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

But every nation that ignores those ideals still has an equal vote in the UN General Assembly. Of course a couple of them, China and Russia, are actually permanent members of the Security Council.

Still, it’s difficult to find any country right now that is committing as many egregious human-rights abuses as Syria. As Neuer put it: “It’s time for the UN to stop legitimizing a government that mercilessly murders its own people.”

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