Human Rights at the UN. (Comment)

By Williams, Ian | The Nation, November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Human Rights at the UN. (Comment)


Williams, Ian, The Nation


The day after Mary Robinson stepped down as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, forced out by determined pressure from Washington, George W. Bush gave a speech at the UN that was at once an indirect tribute to the power of the human rights culture that Robinson has helped build and a potent reminder of how big a threat American isolationism is to that culture. Citing Saddam Hussein's treatment of his "own" people as one of the reasons for taking action against him, Bush came close to endorsing the growing doctrine of "humanitarian intervention," even as he strengthened the worst fears of its opponents by linking it to unilateral action.

However, as a denouncer of human rights violations, Robinson's record is diametrically opposed to Bush's partisan expediency. Even as she left office on September 11, she complained about how the United States, Russia, China and others were abusing human rights under cover of a war on terrorism and once again complained about the Bush Administration's defiance of international law and domestic rights in its treatment of prisoners at the camp at Guantanamo.

For a long time many have dismissed as "politicization" any human rights critiques applied to their own partisan causes. Robinson and human rights organizations have helped carve out a stable base that can hold Havana and Washington, Israel and Arabs, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries to a single standard. One of her achievements was to help put human rights on the developing world's agenda. She recalls that when she took office, developing-country leaders told her, "Don't you know human rights is just a Western stick to beat us with? It is politicized, nothing to do with real concern about human rights." And she agrees they had a point: Certainly the industrialized countries bitterly resented it when she addressed their failings. But by the time she left, the African Union was in accord with her on the importance of human rights to development.

After a decade that included Rwanda, the Balkans and Chechnya, Kofi Annan asked in 2000, "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica--to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?" Robinson has suggested that one response, in parallel with economic globalization, is the development of a practical ethical globalization, the issue she says she will work on now that she has "quit the day job. …

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