The relationship between the United Nations and the human-rights movement has always been ambiguous. On the one hand, human-rights ideology – and it is an ideology, every bit as much as Communism was or neo-liberalism is today – is profoundly legalist, claiming legitimacy from treaties and other international and national instruments. These include, as “first among equals,” the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The modern human-rights movement was born out of the UN, and in many ways it has never entirely left home.
On the other hand, the UN is more a bully pulpit for the promulgation of the high ideals of human rights, equality, and personal and economic freedom than it is a way station on the road to world government (no matter what some conservative extremists in the United States imagine). Indeed, at its institutional core, the UN is an inter-governmental body whose officials, from the most junior staffer to the Secretary General, serve at the pleasure of its member states – above all, its powerful member states. As a result of this profound contradiction between ambition and mandate, the UN often seems to impede the advance of human-rights goals as much as it realizes them.
Doubters need only recall the unwillingness of Secretary General after Secretary General, from U Thant to Kofi Annan, to meet with – or, in some cases, even to permit on the UN’s premises – victims of human rights violations who had the misfortune of being born in powerful countries. For all the UN’s intellectual commitment to the furtherance of human rights, it knows better than to incite the displeasure of the Chinese or the Russians by receiving activists from Tibet or Chechnya.
In fairness, no UN Secretary General has paid greater homage to the ideals of the human-rights movement, or attempted, at least rhetorically, to associate the UN with those ideals, than Kofi Annan. Rhetoric is not reality, of course, and the UN’s declarations have often seemed far removed from its daily practice. But words are not without consequences, and there is little question that human rights has occupied a higher place in international deliberations during Annan’s tenure than ever before. Moreover, Annan’s appointee as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Irish President Mary Robinson, was instrumental in many developing countries’ adoption of a human-rights agenda, which previously was often viewed as a flag of convenience for Western meddling.