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  • Humility & the UN

    Posted by Ginny on July 28th, 2006 (All posts by )

    Shannon said it succinctly: “I can think of few things more vile than advocating for the deaths of innocents for what amounts to a very large and expensive piece of performance art.” But Joshua Brook’s “Human Rights Advocates Embarrass Themselves” lays out a similar common sense argument.

    The UN’s position, both geographically (within the Hez encampments) and judgementally (the statements of Kofi Annan, Jan Egeland, Louise Arbour), demonstrates a remarkable lack of self-consciousness. The ease with which its officials have been bribed (in large amounts as in the oil-for-food scam and in small ones as in the burial of evidence) contradicts the ideals posited by the more idealistic of its founders. We now see this as yet another Utopian mirage, but at one time many of us sympathized with its internationalism. Enforcement, objectivity – we somehow thought of these as abstractions. They are not, of course.

    Now, we see less understanding and humility before those old rights by those at the UN than those who oppose it. Clearly, the average UN employee, whether Kofi Annan or a soldier guarding refugees in Africa, sees his own desires as more important than any objective & transcendent rights. We see that in Annan’s tone when asked the kind of questions he expects our senators & presidents to face on a daily basis; we see it in Malloch Brown’s belief American peasants distrust the UN because of their masters, the press. While our system stands in awe of the ability of a broad & reasoning populace to get it right most of the time, UN administrators find facts, common sense & the opinions of the plebes getting in their way. This has long been the attitude of both dictators and bureaucrats.

    Once upon a time, the UN was home to big ideas; those who wanted a broader international economy & broader international human rights hoped the UN would encourage the spread of the rule of law internationalists welcome. International commerce & a higher level of human rights are defined & encouraged by these rules. If the laws limit us, we describe them as property & civil rights because they enable us to enjoy far more freedom than we would without them. We are not likely to invest in a business in a society without property rights for instance. Constantly & not always perfectly adjusting those tradeoffs is life in the Anglosphere.

    But such rule requires a broader vision & humility in admistrators than we see at the UN. Whether in the belief that raping chldren is part of the peacekeeper’s perqs or building up one’s private accounts through bribes & “friendly” gifts or in scolding the United States, which is heroically saving the victims of the tsunami with immediate and useful care, for not giving enough money to UN administrators to do with as they like – all are willfully grabbing power.

    As usual, the most impassioned & knowledgeable argument comes from Claudia Rosett. She points to another exchange,

    The issue here is not, in fact, what yardsticks these people are using — though that is quite problematic enough — but that they are abusing their U.N. positions by making these selective, ad hoc accusations against Israel in the first place. These folks are not presidents, or prime ministers. They are U.N. civil servants. Even Kofi Annan, who fancies himself, by his own description, to be “perhaps chief diplomat of the world,” is actually under the U.N. charter mandated to be nothing more than the organization’s “chief administrative officer.” (When trying to duck the blame for the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, Annan was quick enough to deny not only any policy role, but even his clear administrative responsibilities).

    The discomfort most Americans feel about the EU arises from our long, strong, & pervasive suspicion that Acton was describing bureaucrats as well as emperors when he said “power tends to corrupt.” The checks and balances of elections are healthy; bureaucrats, accountable to no one, are ripe for the seductive pleas of personal will. They fall prey to that human failing condensed in Melville’s description of Claggart: their consciences became lawyers to their wills. (Although I’d bet Egeland thinks his conscience is more refined than most Americans.) And so now such legalese is piling up, separated from any sense of the right or even of the law.

    Bolton is charged with insufficient humility. It seems to me he has plenty properly applied. He actually wants the UN to work, for instance, because he believes it has potential. He is humble before the task before him. He is even more humbled before facts. We see that in his exchange with John Kerry. What Clinton did didn’t work. To hold up that treaty as something well done without acknowledging its tattered & worthless form today is delusional. Such delusions are the mark of those who don’t face facts, don’t accept what history has turned out to be. Kerry posits a reality without Korea’s starving population, its empowered rockets, and the wmd research of the intervening years. That is pride, that is living as if we had all entered the artificial world Kerry treats as reality but is merely a creation of his imagination. (And does anyone sigh for a moment & think what a bullet we missed on that one – that’s his idea of an argument?)

    More importantly, Bolton wants the rule of law to work. And it is he, not the UN spokesman, who remembers the importance of such humility (which leads to the objectivity so important to that web of limitations and empowerments woven by the rule of law). Rosett remarks:

    In the case of Arbour, and her threats aimed at Israelis, Ambassador John Bolton had a very good point when he offered a reminder last weekend to the U.N. High Commissioner, as “one lawyer to another,” that “In America, prosecutors are not supposed to threaten people in public based on press accounts.”

    (From Instapundit, who adds this link, giving another take on the incident during which Annan shoots from the hip. He also adds to the Brook’s link some other perspectives.

    Jim Miller describes another signal of humility/arrogance, that of being “on time.” (And, in full disclosure, I admit that you can set your clock by my husband’s patterns & not by mine.) Scrolling through Miller’s observations, another caught my eye – his discussion of the difference in outcome when judges are elected or appointed. The judicial and the political temperament seem sufficiently different to make us pause at electing them, but certainly judges who reflect the populace’s sense of what is beyond the pale is a sensiblw idea.