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Human Rights and the Hypocrisy of the United Nations

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

By Nora Delahaye

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a document that established international standards for the basic rights afforded to human beings. Among other things, this new framework of human rights law established the right of human beings to equality and liberty.

As a way to enforce these rights, the UDHR decrees a mandate of the United Nations (UN) to intervene in situations where human rights are violated, which it can do through organized diplomacy, economic sanction, or military intervention. Historically, however, the UN has been inconsistent with the types of human rights violations that it chooses to address; while some circumstances receive its attention, others are ignored. In effect, human rights are routinely violated across the world; the recent death of George Floyd - an event symbolic of a deeper pattern of race-based prosecution and police brutality in the United States - is one striking example.

According to Martin Binder, one explanation for the inconsistency in these UN responses could be an issue of normativity. While the UDHR outlines standards for what situations the UN ought to intervene in, the decision-making process is subjective in practice. When the UN decides to intervene, it does so through a morally and empathetically motivated judgement about how “severe” a scenario is and ''the extent of human suffering'' within it.

In this regard, when the UN fails to intervene in a scenario that proves to be disastrous - such as occurred during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 - the failure can be understood as an “interpretive error”. Events like Rwanda, nonetheless, demonstrate how weak of an explanation this is; before the genocide of 1994, it was public knowledge that Rwanda’s Tutsi ethnic minority had been subject to violent persecution. It is absurd, therefore, to suggest that the UN didn't “interpret” the scenario as serious enough to warrant intervention.

Another possible explanation, then, is the UN’s expectation that its intervention will be met with hostile resistance (Binder). When intervening in a groups’ affairs, the UN must consider the chances that its actions will be resisted by a force strong enough to obstruct in the completion of its objectives. In this sense, the UN makes decisions about intervention based on the relative strength and perceived hostility of the actor that it is acting against. Support for this explanation, nonetheless, is still not strong; in the case of Rwanda, it is unlikely that ''the limited military strength of potential adversaries and the country’s small size'' deterred the UN from intervention (Kuperman, 109).

The strongest explanatory factor for the UN’s pattern of decision-making is the political context in which these decisions are made. The UN’s decision-making body, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is composed of five central members: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China. Inherently, each one of these member states has its own national political interests. By exercising influence over the decisions the UN body makes, these states seek to realize these interests. The agendas of these five central members, then, have a substantial effect on the decisions that the UN body makes as a whole.

Obviously, it is in the political interest of a member state to protect itself. Therefore, if it is one of the member states themselves accused of committing human rights violations, it will attempt to prevent the UN from intervening. This might help explain the case of George Floyd: there is little prospect that the UN would act to confront the issue of American police brutality due to the United State’s influence within the UN. In addition, it is in the interest of member states to protect their international allies. The strategic relationship between Russia and Syria, for example, has caused Russia to obstruct UN attempts to investigate Syria's use of chemical weapons during the Syrian Civil War (Reuters).

It is clear that the UN does not make decisions about when to intervene in matters of human rights violations solely on the basis of protecting human rights. While Binder puts forward various explanatory arguments - such as variations in normative interpretation and the threat of resistance - the most plausible explanation for UN behavior is the geopolitical interests of its member states. Routinely, these interests interfere with the ability of the UN to fulfill its role as a protectorate body of the UDHR. Rather, it becomes a political body: an international self-help system for member states. The effect, unfortunately, is that actors who commit crimes against humanity all too often go unpunished.


Works Cited:

Binder, Martin. ''Why Does UN Humanitarian Intervention Remain Selective?'' Oxford Research Group, March 7, 2017.

Kuperman, Alan. ''The limits of humanitarian intervention : genocide in Rwanda'' Brookings Institution Press. 2004.

Reuters Staff. ''Russia vetoes U.S. bid to form new Syria chemical weapons inquiry'' Reuters. April 11, 2018.

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