The bipartisan Congressional Task Force on the United Nations has released its findings in the form of a report entitled “American Interests and UN Reform.” Among the report’s many recommendations — including many with which I completely agree, such as empowering the Secretary-General to replace top UN officials, and the creation of an Independent Oversight Board to audit UN programs — comes the following dramatic proposal: eliminate the UN Human Rights Commission, because it has betrayed its founding mission by permitting members who abuse human rights.

So distorted has the 53-member Human Rights Commission become that countries with appalling, even monstrous, human rights records—Sudan, Syria, Zimbabwe, Libya, and Cuba, to name a few—could all be seated there. Today the government of Sudan—even as it oversees the perpetration of genocide on its own soil—is serving its second consecutive term on the commission!

Instead of the UN Human Rights Commission, the Task Force recommends that the United States move towards the creation of a democracies-only Human Rights Council, which would operate more or less outside of the UN system to promote human rights:

… until the United Nations holds its members accountable for their failure to observe well-established human rights norms, the United Nations is not the best forum for the proposed Human Rights Council. Human rights are best promoted by states that themselves respect the human and political rights of their own citizens. Democratic governments that recognize the equal freedom of all citizens offer the best protection of human rights and the best examples in “state practice” in terms of customary international law on the protection of human rights. Historically, they have also been the most forceful and effective proponents of the extension of human and political rights and the end of their abuse.

The upshot of these recommendations is to suggest something like the following position: only “good” (read: democratic) countries can and should say anything about human rights; other countries should keep their criticisms to themselves, or become democracies.

This is a very problematic position in several respects.

First of all, the notion that only “good” people/countries/organizations can and should be able to say things about human rights strikes me as a morally questionable stance. Indeed, it reminds me (but probably doesn’t remind any of you … at least not yet) of an important episode in the early Christian church that pitted Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, against the Donatists. At issue: the question of whether someone had to be in a “state of grace” to administer sacraments like baptism and communion. The Donatists maintained that you did; Augustine disagreed, pointing out that no human being was actually ever in a state of grace, since all were sinners, and so insisting on purity would mean that there would never be any sacraments whatsoever.

The point here is that whether an act is good, or whether an argument is justified, has nothing to do with the characteristics of the speaker and everything to do with the qualities of the act itself. Libya or Cuba or even Sudan might be violating human rights, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify any arguments they might make about someone else violating human rights, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be unable to help monitor human rights norms. (They might be unwilling to do so, but that brings me to my next point — see below.) Logic 101 teaches that we should avoid ad hominem and tu quoque arguments in which the personal characteristics of the speaker are introduced as valid criticisms of a position; the same principle applies here.

Being on the UN Human Rights Commission isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a reward for being virtuous. Instead, being on the UN Human Rights Commission, and the very existence of a UN Human Rights Commission in the first place, is a kind of public organizational declaration in favor of human rights — a tangible symbol of a set of normative and conventional commitments. And the existence of such a symbol sets up the possibility of shaming countries into adhering to those norms and conventions — one can hold them accountable by pointing out the discrepancy between their overt commitments and their individual practices. “You should be upholding human rights — you’re on the Human Rights Commission!” is an argument without logical strength, but with a great deal of political strength, since no one likes being called a hypocrite.

La Rouchefoucauld’s famous dictum that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” seems relevant here. Saying one thing and doing another reinforces the value of the principle that you profess, since you are still making a special effort to declare your agreement with it. Such hypocrisy also opens the door for some third party to call you on the conflict between your principles and your actions, and thus (in a sense) rhetorically coerce you by pointing out the gap between what you say and what you do. The power of such a political strategy comes directly from the fact that the target of the strategy has publicly assented to the principle in question; if I’ve never declared myself to be a supporter of human rights, then your accusation that I’m not upholding human rights norms doesn’t seem quite as pointed a criticism.

The Task Force’s recommendation to scrap the UN Human Rights Commission eliminates this potential strategy of social and political influence. But the problem is compounded by their recommendation to produce a “coalition of the virtuous,” so to speak, as a way of pressing for greater adherence to human rights norms. Now human rights violators will be faced with the condemnation of a club to which they do not belong, rather than being admonished to live up to a set of principles that they profess to value. Since the strategy of rhetorical coercion via shaming is no longer available, this new Human Rights Council will in all likelihood find itself reduced to exhorting violators to find their way back to the True Faith — or authorizing the use of force in an effort to force these rogue states to be free and civilized and democratic. (I think we’ve heard this someplace before, haven’t we?)

To make matters worse, declaring that a Human Rights Council composed of democracies will be a better instrument for promoting human rights norms presumes that democracies do not violate human rights. This is patently untrue. I am deeply skeptical about a human rights promotion infrastructure which would, in effect, organizationally link “democracy” and “human rights” in such a way as to make it harder to accuse a democracy of human rights violations: “we’re on the Human Rights Council! Don’t accuse us of violating human rights; look at those non-democracies over there, and the bad things they are doing to their citizens. Sure, we make mistakes from time to time, but we’re <democracies, and thus closer to perfection than others.” It’s the sheer hubris of the claim that bothers me.

In sum, the Task Force proposes to replace the existing system where you don’t have to be in a state of grace to make pronouncements about human rights with a system in which only those presumed to be in a state of grace are empowered to speak on the subject. Doing so would virtually eliminate the strategy of rhetorical coercion via shaming, thus leaving us with blunter forms of coercion as the only way to promote human rights norms. At the same time, the new system would reinforce an illusion that doesn’t need any reinforcing, since it’s already doing quite well on its own: the illusion that democracy, like cleanliness, is near to godliness. The recommendation strikes me as a bad idea all around, both for what it will do to inter-state relations and for what it will do to the already inflated egos of the Coalition of the Putatively Virtuous Democracies.

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