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Not long ago, I joined a Washington luncheon with Shashi Tharoor, an under-secretary general at the United Nations. Tharoor, a candidate to replace Kofi Annan last year as head of the UN, speaks with the polish and assurance of the quintessential UN diplomat. But when asked why repressive states such as China and Saudi Arabia should be allowed to serve on the UN's premier human-rights body, he hesitated. "You don't advance human rights," Tharoor insisted, "by preaching only to the converted."

Here on display is the flawed idealism of the UN's human-rights agenda, as if having human-rights abusers judging human-rights cases is the way to convert them. It is the same utopian impulse that lies behind multilateralism (the idea that nations should always act in concert) and its cousin multiculturalism (openness to the traditions and values of other cultures) and causes such confusion about human rights. Though helpful in some contexts, these ideas are slavishly applied in international politics in ways that assault the concepts of natural rights and moral norms enshrined not only in our Declaration of Independence, but also in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The unconverted states, of course, have hijacked human-rights ideals for their own despotic purposes. A 2004 UN task force report lamented a "legitimacy deficit" in the organization's commitment to human rights. A year later, Kofi Annan admitted that the United Nations was "passing through the gravest crisis of its existence" because of its tarnished record. He finally recommended that the Human Rights Commission be abolished and replaced by a reconstituted Human Rights Council, an idea approved by the General Assembly last year. It appears, however, that the ...

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In the Magazine

February 2007

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