The principles of the [United Nations] are holier than the policies of any single nation.
—Former U.N. secretary-general Trygve Lie
Gunmen on horseback attacked a truck carrying medicine and aid . . . in Darfur . . . and killed 30 civilians, some of whom were burned alive, the United Nations said yesterday.
—The Guardian, London, December 11
Sixty years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, and 30 years after the Cambodian killing fields, the promise of “never again” is ringing hollow.
Kofi Annan, speaking in honor of International Human Rights Day, December 8, New York
I have often been critical of the departing Kofi Annan—before he became secretary-general of the United Nations—starting with his complicity of silence, along with former president Bill Clinton, in the Rwanda genocide, which he and Clinton could have stopped before the rivers of blood flowed. (Annan was then head of U.N. peacekeeping operations.) In response to my criticism, I’ve been publicly rebuked by his spokespeople. But now, in a resounding goodbye at Lincoln Center, under the auspices of Human Rights Watch, Annan has partly redeemed himself by nakedly revealing the lethal failures of the U.N. and its sovereign nations. (The press largely ignored this speech in favor of the less fiery one at the Truman Library.)
Referring to Sudan’s incessant invocation of its national sovereignty, in refusing to let in U.N. forces to stop the rivers of blood there, Annan did not limit his indictment to Khartoum. He nailed many other U.N. nations complicit in a genocide even more horrifying than Rwanda’s, which will eventually produce far more corpses:
“[Blame] can be shared among those who value abstract notions of sovereignty more than the lives of real families—those whose reflex of solidarity puts them on the side of governments and not of peoples, and those who fear that action to stop the slaughter would jeopardize their commercial interests.”
For example, sitting coldly on the all-powerful Security Council—threatening vetoes against actions that would being the genocidal rulers of Sudan to disarm the murderous Janjaweed and bring in U.N. forces—is the People’s Republic of China, which buys most of Sudan’s oil.
But not only China helps to fuel the mass murders and rapes by the Arab Janjaweed in Darfur. As the December 9 issue of The Economist points out:
“Too many countries now have a large financial stake in Sudan. Their wish to be nice to the regime in Khartoum means they have no interest in forcing it to mend its
ways. . . . [And] there has been little help from the Arab League either—or from India and Malaysia.”
And what of the countries Annan refers to when calling the responsibility to protect Darfur a “conspiracy by imperialist powers to take back the hard-won national sovereignty of formerly colonized people”?
The United Nations allegedly has a Human Rights Council, which, unaccountably, Human Rights Watch initially praised as a marked improvement over its disgraced predecessor. Annan, in his New York speech, justly scored the new council for its one-sided focus on Israel—and for its indifference to unabated human rights abuses in many other countries, including Sudan and others in Africa. Consider, for example, the hell on earth that is Zimbabwe. (And why is the venerated human rights icon Nelson Mandela so silent on the human rights crimes of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s onetime “liberator,” who has become the scourge of his people?)
Said Annan on Africa: “Unless Africa wholeheartedly embraces the inviolability of human rights, its struggle for security and development will not succeed. Many African governments are still resisting the responsibility to protect. Many, even among the most democratic, are still reluctant to play their role in the Human Rights Council by speaking out impartially against all abuses. They can, and must, do more.” (Emphasis added.)
In leaving, Kofi Annan did not ignore the war on terrorism. “We need an anti-terrorism strategy that does not merely pay lip service to the defense of human rights but is built on it,” he said. “That is why secret prisons have no place in our struggle against terrorism, and why all places where terrorism suspects are detained must be accessible to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Leading promoters of human rights undermine their own influence when they fail to live up to these principles.” (Emphasis added.)
Which country could Annan be referring to? Could it be this country, with its “exceptions” to the Geneva Conventions and its own war crimes statute on the treatment of prisoners? And its refusal to let the Red Cross inside the CIA’s “black sites”?
Annan dropped a heavy hint on the country he had in mind: “Once we adopt a policy of making exceptions to these rules or excusing breaches of them, no matter how narrow, we are on a slippery slope. The line cannot be held halfway down. We must defend it at the top.”
Those at the very top here for two more years show no signs of being swayed one inch by Annan’s urgent farewell message. As for the candidates to succeed them, John McCain sold out his principles on the issues that define a nation by voting for—and warmly supporting—the Military Commissions Act of 2006, allowing the president to ignore the Geneva Conventions and define what “torture” is.
And in his successful book signings around the country, Barack Obama has yet to say specifically what he would do about the CIA secret prisons, the warrantless eavesdropping on us by the National Security Agency, or the government’s use of the “state secrets” weapon to foreclose judicial oversight into its “exceptions” to American and international law.
Further, while Hillary Clinton did briefly come alive on some of these “exceptions” to the Bill of Rights during floor debate on the Military Commissions Act (while McCain dozed), these do not appear to be among her current priorities, let alone those of hordes of advisers for her presidential campaign.
And whoever thought of Rudy Giuliani as a civil libertarian—or a passionate protector of human rights around the world? But at least Annan, much too late in his tenure, has set clear standards for all presumably civilized nations, very much including this one. Any presidential candidates listening?