Letting Killers Guard Human Rights

If it were not so profoundly sad, it would qualify as the sick joke of the millennium: Libya has been elected to chair the United Nations Commission on Human Rights! When Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate, the horse at least did not have blood on its hoofs.

The procedure, of course, was perfectly legal: the chairmanship rotates every year from one global region to another. This year it was Africa's turn to nominate the chairman, and they nominated Libya. Only the US and Canada voted against. To their everlasting shame, European countries abstained.

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It is a telling commentary on the moral bankruptcy of the UN that this decision comes at so delicate a time for the organization. President Bush has challenged the UN to show its seriousness about its own mandatory decisions about Iraq: otherwise it may meet the same ignominious end as the League of Nations, which proved impotent in the 1930's when confronted with the aggressive policies of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. To have Libya elected at this moment to chair the UN body responsible for human rights hardly helps support either the legitimacy or the moral authority of the world body.

Let us remember: Libya is a totalitarian tyranny; its leader, Muammar Ghaddafi, combines sometimes erratic behavior with extremist policies, supporting dictators all over the world. He heads one of the world's most oppressive regimes, where there is no pretense at elections and where dissent is instantly crushed.

Under his rule, Libya has supported terrorist organizations worldwide--from the IRA to various Palestinian extremist groups. It remains under UN sanctions for its role in the downing of a Pan Am passenger flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, a decade ago.

In the last decade, the position of the UN as a symbol of the ideals of a peaceful world community has been steadily eroded. It proved utterly unable to stop the wars in the Balkans; and in at least one case--Srebrenica--a Dutch UN peacekeeping force stood by and witnessed the worst massacre in post-1945 Europe, as Bosnian Serbs murdered around 6,000 defenseless Muslim men. A Dutch commission of enquiry later admitted that the UN Dutch battalion was, in fact, complicit in that war crime.

In Rwanda, once the genocide started, the UN official responsible for peacekeeping operations ordered the evacuation of UN forces from the country, leaving the field wide open to the bloodiest genocidal massacre since World War II. That UN official's name is Kofi Annan.

It is a depressing, pathetic record, which the UN is trying--probably in vain--to redeem by appearing, in the Iraq crisis, as the voice of reason and international legitimacy. But at a time when UN inspections in Iraq seem like sending the Salvation Army to clear out a band of gangsters, raising Libya to head the Human Rights Commission may go down in history as the definitive failure of an organization whose life started with so much hope.

Organizations usually don't die--and certainly there is too much raison d'etat to make certain that the UN will continue to hobble on. But it will be a mere shadow of what it should, and could, be. Today's UN gives hypocrisy a bad name.