Human rights are the most powerful political currency of our time. But the UN human rights system has squandered the commitment and passion of its original benefactors.
The United Nations rose from the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust. The UN's original vision was that of a beacon for moral values. The Organization was intended to insure the international peace and security that is critical for human dignity and mutual respect. In the Charter's words, "We the peoples of the United Nations determined ... to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small ... have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims .." The starting point of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was clear: "Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind..."
The foundational UN principles of equality, universal human rights and fundamental freedoms emanated from a real and immediate sense of wrong and responsibility. As the Nuremberg Tribunal taught, "Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities." The UN was to play a central role in the so-called "naming and shaming" of transgressors, and where necessary, was to garner the political will to stop egregious violations of dignity and freedom. The UN, however, has not lived up to the task of "naming," let alone shaming or intervening.
At the foundation of the UN in 1945, democracy dominated the character of the majority of member states, despite pockets of instability. Nevertheless, democracy was not made a pre-condition for membership in the UN. More than seventy years later, the majority of UN members are not full-fledged democracies. The consequences for UN operations and outcomes are profound.
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