The U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group reconvened last week in Geneva to examine the human rights records of 14 U.N. member states.
The review was established as part of the new Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2006 and intended to review all 192 U.N. member states regarding their compliance with human rights treaties and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As unobjectionable as that might sound, the Universal Periodic Review system is seriously flawed and has more often than not been used to legitimize human rights violators and silence non-governmental organizations seeking to report on human rights abuses.
The HRC was created to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which had been thoroughly discredited by its routine failure to protect human rights and its inclusion of notorious human rights abusers like Cuba and China. Under the Bush Administration, the U.S. wisely declined to seek a seat on the new HRC, pessimistic that the new body would differ substantially from the old and reluctant to lend legitimacy to the untested entity.
The Obama Administration, however, chose to pursue U.S. membership on the HRC, a move that has thus far failed to improve it. The HRC still counts China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia among its sitting members, and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez is campaigning to fill a seat on the HRC that was formerly occupied by Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi.
Like much that transpires at the U.N., the results of HRC meetings can be a mixed bag for proponents of freedom. When the HRC met in Geneva last month, it passed a resolution affirming traditional values and their positive role in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms, albeit over the objections of the U.S. delegation and several of its European allies.
These human rights meetings occur against the backdrop of an ongoing effort by some within the U.N. and the non-governmental community to strengthen the international human rights apparatus, particularly the role of U.N. treaty bodies. Treaty bodies, generally consisting of unelected experts in a particular field, act as functional bodies of a global administrative state that exercise substantial influence, often exceeding their mandate of monitoring compliance with the particular treaty that established them. The U.N. now boasts 10 such treaty bodies, which altogether hold 24 sessions at the U.N. per year.
Those who seek to strengthen these treaty bodies misdiagnose a fundamental problem within the sphere of human rights. The U.N. system is not lacking in powerful bureaucrats; rather, it needs a clearer focus on the paramount importance of natural human rights and the institutional resolve to protect those rights. To make matters worse, the language of human rights has been co-opted by advocates of any number of sexual and social rights, while the primacy of natural rights—and even political and economic rights—has been sacrificed. The greatest victims in this general decline of human rights have been the rights to life, religion, and speech.
Years of incremental efforts on the part of abortion advocates and radical feminists to liberalize abortion laws worldwide have culminated in their latest attempt to create a right to abortion at the HRC. The HRC adopted a set of technical guidelines on maternal mortality that included abortion under the rubric of “sexual and reproductive health rights.” The U.N. General Assembly will consider the HRC resolution some time in the coming weeks. Last year it rejected similar language when it was presented by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Health.
Alongside U.N. allies such as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, the Obama Administration has conducted a similarly aggressive push to expand special rights and protections for homosexuals under the human rights framework.
While seemingly the favorite of many international bureaucrats and their liberal allies, the advancement of so-called sexual rights is not the only direction in which the U.N. human rights apparatus stretches its reach. For example, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights recently called on the European Union to ensure that its proposed banking sector reforms comply with its various human rights obligations. Meanwhile, another U.N. expert urged EU leaders to limit austerity measures and instead cut funds from defense and military budgets in response to the financial crisis.
While the HRC continues its Universal Periodic Review this month, its participants, including the U.S. delegation, would be wise to consider opportunities for the new body to enhance its legitimacy by returning to first principles grounded in natural law and embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead of creating new—and largely controversial—rights, the HRC ought to shine a light on the tragic examples where fundamental rights to life, speech, and religion continue to be violated today.