Towards A Good Samaritan World

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Here's an article about the UN human rights commission:

The new leadership of the United Nations Human Rights Commission calls to mind an old story. Told that the World Bank would be holding a conference on corruption in his country, a Cambodian official joked, "Why — to learn how to do it better?"

Recently elected to this year's Human Rights Commission "action panel" were Cuba and Zimbabwe. The regimes of two of the world's top rights-abusers — Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro — will now help decide which human-rights complaints will get a hearing at the U.N.

In just the past few years, Castro has drawn international sanction for a roundup of political dissidents, sending them to the island's famous prisons. Mugabe, among his charms, has also recently set out to ban foreign funding of human-rights workers — effectively banning NGOs from the country.

News about the UN often inspires me to link to an article I wrote last fall called "Guelfs and Ghibellines." Read the comments for more.


  • We are always complaining about how corrupt and ineffectual the UN is, and with reason. A common reaction is despair, e.g. Glenn Reynolds' reaction of despair at the UN's supine reaction to the genocide in Darfur.

    But is it possible that the UN would cease to be corrupt and ineffectual? And what would happen if it did? I think it would amount to a world revolution of sorts, and one that might be very dangerous for US power, though beneficial to humanity. Moreover, I think it is quite possible, with the model being the medieval Catholic Church.

    Changes in the UN constitution would be part of it. These could easily take place because there is a sort of internal pressure within these organizations to evolve and increase their power, simply because their notional mandates are so grandiose. Imagine, for example, that a figure of great moral prestige, comparable, say, to Mahatma Gandhi, became Secretary-General. Suppose a UN Secretary-General did have the courage personally to intervene against genocide, took a leading role, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and then was assassinated on a risky but vital mission to finalize the peace, so that he became a martyr. This could raise the prestige of the UN dramatically even in places like the US, let alone in the many foreign countries where the UN is already highly respected.

    The UN has, in a sense, the power "to bind and the loose," as Christ put it in a different but in some respects parallel context. The UN ultimately has a sort of authority to bestow legitimacy on governments. Its imprimatur could potentially have a huge monetary value, and could even be monetized. The secretary-general could recognize this election or this rebel faction and de-recognize that one, and collect huge quantities of money from the losers as a payoff. If this became a usual practice, the UN could supplement its stingy budget with a huge amount of protection money.

    Now, in peaceful times, such cynical operations might undermine the UN's moral authority. But if the UN were engaged in a titanic global struggle against the US, people would be distracted from the sordid details, and many would see the grand end as justifying the sordid means. And before long, such practices would come to seem normal-- and greatly contribute to the UN's power.

    Another example of the UN's latent power: imagine what would happen if the International Criminal Court picked up the habit of punishing companies that did business with genocidal and/or human-rights-abusing regimes. This could be a slippery slope. At first you would imprison the CEOs of companies that gave arms to murderous dictators. Later any company that did business with genocidaires, rebels, or other condemned groups would be indicted. The US is not a member of the ICC, of course; this means that American CEOs could not be arrested at home. But American firms might have their overseas assets seized. CEOs might be arrested upon going abroad, leaving them trapped in the US. And America's non-participation in the ICC could render the court prejudiced against the US.

    The UN could also mount an offensive against the dollar, for example by encouraging countries to trade in other currencies, or coordinating a global tax on dollar transactions. Even if not all countries participated in the scheme, the effect could be devastating.

    The UN could also openly collaborate with America's enemies. Suppose that the UN had said: 1) the US invasion of Iraq is an illegal war, 2) because it is an illegal war, international law is on the side of Saddam, 3) we must support the Baathists and others who are resisting the US-led coalition. It would not have to send arms itself: enough to authorize other countries who wished to supply arms to the insurgents, and to protect them from punishment.

    Most journalists worldwide (and, obviously, even in the US) instinctively side with the UN. As literacy increases throughout the developing world, as more people get education, the UN's constituency will automatically increase.

    A turning point could be any change in the governance structure of the UN. In the 1990s Clinton ousted Bhoutros Bhoutros-Ghali. This would be a lot harder now, because if we ousted Kofi there would probably be a pro-Kofi backlash from the international left. The UN, indeed, is the perfect vehicle for the political self-expression of the international left as it has emerged in the past two years in reaction to the Iraq War. Suppose that John Kerry were elected, and a movement took shape globally to choose the UN leader in a fashion that did not allow the US to effectively veto him. Foreign powers shame John Kerry into signing it-- and let's say that a lot of Democrats openly favor signing it to tie the hands of future unilateralist renegades like George Bush. At that point, we would be on course towards a world in which the secretary-general became, in effect, the pope of an international socialist church.

    All of this could easily happen within a generation.

    And, despite appearances, and even though I think it would lead to a certain kind of disaster, I would applaud it. Because I believe that a powerful, influential UN would at least prefigure a better world order, a world order that left behind the caste system enforced by borders. For the present world is a disaster in another way: one-tenth of humanity lives in freedom and prosperity, while billions live in destitute poverty. America alone will never adequately deal with this vast injustice, however impressive George Bush may be in overthrowing tyranny and spreading freedom in the short run. We have farmers who want subsidies. We have workers who don't want wage competition from immigrants. The constituency for foreign aid is miniscule. When George W. Bush is gone, I do not expect America to remain long worthy to exercise the world power we have amassed.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 1:55 PM  

  • Lancelot,

    I understand your point about the current situation. But my guess is that an empowered UN is not going to accomplish anything except to institutionalize current societal norms, and most of those would be quite oppressive norms. To put it simply, there would be no place left to run.

    At its best, our representative system works because there is accountability, i.e. the union of power and responsibility for the use of that power. The UN seems to have veered so far off course because its officials have influence without checks. If the UN mishandles something, it will always blame the outcome on circumstances beyond its control.

    The workings of the UN at this point remind me of the Tieneman Square massacre - the Party brought in an army division from a distant province in order to suppress the students, because they feared the locals would sympathize. A truly world power like the UN could always do the same.

    The medieval Catholic church was hardly a totally positive influence. As it grew in worldly power it became corrupted.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 11:19 AM  

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