Yesterday was International Human Rights Day, the date marking the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948. Not even the most devoted U.N. apologists, however, could be in a festive mood. Even by their own Orwellian standards - in which the world's dictatorships sit in judgment of the world's democracies - it has not been a banner year for the cause of human rights.
The latest U.N. debacle might be called the Great Helicopter Scam. Last week U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon complained that he couldn't persuade U.N. member states to donate a single helicopter for the planned African Union-UN peacekeeping force in Sudan, where ethnic cleansing has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced another 2 million. The joint mission of 26,000 troops, to begin deploying next month, needs at least 10 transport and attack helicopters to provide air mobility and firepower to protect civilians and peacekeepers.
"We need on-the-ground capability, specifically helicopters," said Ban. "We're not getting them. Because of that, the entire mission is at risk." The helicopter deficit, however, was easily foreseeable. The U.N. Security Council approved the mission months ago, well aware that the current African Union force has been crippled by a lack of military assets, especially air power. U.N. officials are also aware that the new force will remain ineffective if Sudan's Islamist regime continues to dictate the terms of the deployment.
President Omar al Bashir, whose government is widely believed to be instigating the atrocities in Darfur, has refused to allow a sufficient number of U.N. peacekeepers or military assets to protect civilians. He has manipulated anti-American sentiment to make any U.S. (or NATO) contribution of air power next to impossible. He has reckoned that U.N. resolutions to implement the latest "peace accord" would go nowhere. And he has gambled that the ill-equipped AU force would not receive the financial or military support needed to make it a viable peacekeeping mission.
No one has called the dictator's bluff. This year alone, about 280,000 more people have been forced to flee the violence in Darfur, according to U.N. officials. Attacks on aid workers and their convoys reached "unprecedented levels," while some aid organizations have left the region altogether.
Yet even as the body count continues to escalate, many activists and others remain busy excoriating the United States for its "cowboy diplomacy" and supposed "loss of credibility" on human rights issues. Never mind that the United States has helped maintain 34 base camps for the AU force and given more than $1.7 billion in assistance, making it the largest single donor to Darfur. Forget that the Bush administration, along with Great Britain, has done the most to tighten economic sanctions against Khartoum's Islamist regime. The U.N.'s dissembling over Darfur is an unhappy reminder of what can happen to the cause of human rights when America does not take the lead militarily.
Most Arab states dwell in a bog of human rights hypocrisy; they've kept silent as the Arab-Islamist theocracy in Khartoum has countenanced horrific violence against non-Arab tribes in the country's west. The African Union struggles to rise above African "solidarity" to take a tough stance against mass murder in its own neighborhood. The European obsession with diplomacy and "soft power" has left the European Union nearly bankrupt of political will: It fails to invest in the "hard power" required to prevent gross human rights abuses -- as the survivors of conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Rwanda can attest.
As for U.N. efforts to promote human rights and social justice? Its peacekeepers are overstretched, ill-equipped, and often hampered by mandates that force them to the sidelines as violence erupts against civilians. Earlier this year, the United Nations elected Zimbabwe - a basket-case of political repression and corruption - to chair its Commission on Sustainable Development (an elite club that includes Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan). Meanwhile, the hopelessly politicized Human Rights Council, dominated by its Islamic bloc, keeps a cynical gaze on Israel.
Thus we return to the Great Helicopter Scam. Perhaps better U.N. leadership would not have led to six months of fruitless negotiations with Jordan for helicopters ultimately deemed inadequate for the mission. Perhaps if the United Nations hadn't squandered billions of dollars in its Oil-for-Food scandal in Iraq, Ban wouldn't now be trolling for contributions for U.N. peacekeepers. Instead, we have the spectacle of the U.N. Secretary General begging for helicopters from states such as China - the Security Council member that arguably has done the most to block meaningful action to stop the bloodletting.
"We are at a critical point. Time is running out," Ban said last week. Ah, yes, the ticking clock: Two days later the Secretary General flew to Bali for a conference on climate change with Al Gore. The people of Darfur could wait.
Something, it seems, has been lost since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights won widespread approval - the moral basis for human dignity, for starters. The U.N.'s mass multiplication of human "rights" has surely weakened an earlier understanding of rights as sacred, unalienable, the gift of nature and nature's God. Charles Malik, the Lebanese delegate and Christian philosopher who helped draft the Universal Declaration, worried intensely about this outcome. "It is precisely my intention," Malik said, "to give meaning to that vague phrase, human dignity and worth to save it from hollowness and emptiness."
Two dozen helicopters. It is a hollow institution, indeed, that cannot muster the resolve, or the conscience, to find them. Military power will not, by itself, solve the many problems of Sudan. But without it we can be sure that the assaults on human dignity - the executions, rapes, ethnic cleansing - will continue. If this fiasco represents the combined political will of the "international community," then the world's human-rights abusers have little to worry about.
By Joseph Loconte