After the 20th century’s first great war, France, Britain, Italy, Japan, and other major powers founded the League of Nations. Its primary mission: To keep the peace. It failed, of course, and the result was World War II. After the Second World War, the major powers created a new and, what they hoped, was an improved model: the United Nations.
Keeping the peace was, again, the principal mission, but the U.N.’s contribution to preventing the Cold War from heating up was marginal at best. And wars between lesser powers continued.
There was other work for the U.N. to do. In 1948, the U.N. General Assembly established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which claimed to “set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.” Today, the authoritarian rulers of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and many other U.N. members do not secure such rights for their subjects. According to Freedom House, 2020 was the 15th consecutive year that the world has seen a “decline in global freedom.”
The most significant U.N. body is the Security Council where Moscow and Beijing wield veto power and use it to protect their interests and those of their allies, however despotic those allies may be. In the U.N. General Assembly, envoys of 193 states, most unfree and undemocratic, pretend to deliberate before voting on resolutions that are said to express the “sense of the international community.”
Affiliated with the U.N. is a long list of international organizations. Among them: The Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Some do useful work. Those that do not are under no pressure to improve. Those that do harm enjoy impunity. A significant number have the power to set “international norms.” Authoritarian regimes have been making concerted efforts – including through bribery and bullying – to dominate and direct them.
Republican and Democratic administrations alike have failed to appreciate how this threatens the post-World War II, American-led order, which was meant to be liberal and rules-based. Serious steps to prevent adversaries of the U.S. and other free nations from manipulating the U.N. system have not been taken.
This has been a source of concern for several years at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank where I hang my hat. Now, FDD scholars have published a monograph, “A Better Blueprint for International Organizations,” examining what went wrong and offering recommendations for repairing the increasingly subverted U.N. system that U.S. taxpayers generously fund.
One example: In 2017, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. vetoed a Security Council resolution proposed by the U.S. to condemn a chemical weapons attack carried out by Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad that killed 400 people, 25 of them children.
China’s rulers, she observes, are “quietly working to corrupt the United Nations from top to bottom. Beijing is pursuing control of virtually every UN agency. Its actions are malicious and often disastrous.”
Consider the WHO which, Amb. Haley writes, “adopted the Chinese party line despite being banned from entering the country during the initial outbreak” of the coronavirus pandemic. “It praised China’s response despite clear evidence of a cover-up. And it continues to cooperate with China despite the country’s unwillingness to share key information on the virus’ origins and spread. China’s stranglehold on the WHO contributed to the death of more than 3 million people, including at least 500,000 Americans.”
Recognizing that the UNHRC had become “a cesspool of human rights violators,” Amb. Haley led the effort to withdraw the U.S. “We care too much about human rights and individual freedom to be part of a group that undermines both,” she argues.
The UNHRC spends much of its time, energy, and funds demonizing Israel, the only nation in the world where Jews constitute a majority, the only nation in the Middle East where Arabs and Muslims serve in parliament after competing in free and fair elections. The UNHRC “has passed 10 times as many resolutions condemning Israel as it has for China, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba combined,” Amb. Haley notes.
The United States is fair game as well. A report issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last week declares: “The murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 and the ensuing mass protests worldwide have marked a watershed in the fight against racism.”
Mr. Floyd’s killer has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison. Meanwhile, the UNHRC has never issued a report on Beijing’s mistreatment – rising to the level of genocide according to both the Biden and Trump administrations – of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Despite all this and more, the Biden administration is now seeking reelection to the UNHRC and has already rejoined and restored funding to the WHO. Neither agency has enacted reforms.
“Accommodation is not a strategy,” Richard Goldberg, editor of the FDD monograph, points out. “Talking about reform is not the same as achieving it. Engaging in diplomacy is not the same as achieving an outcome that strengthens America’s national security and economic prosperity.”
Shortly after taking office, President Biden observed that the world’s democracies are “under assault” from authoritarian regimes seeking to dominate the global order, render it illiberal and impose their own rules. Preventing them from succeeding, he declared, must be “our galvanizing mission.”
That mission cannot be accomplished if the U.S. continues to allow those regimes to conquer the U.N. system. But the White House, the State Department, and the Congress have not begun to fight.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.
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