United Nations Reform and Human Rights

The world is busy debating the reform of the United Nations. In mid-September a rendezvous with history is anticipated in New York City: a summit of heads of states and governments to decide up-to-date structures for the governance of the planet. In 1945, in the aftermath of a bloody and destructive war of unprecedented cruelty, 51 countries, led by the winner nations, decided to launch a project, both ambitious and tough, to protect peace in the world. Sixty years later, 191 countries still struggle to achieve the goals set out in the first lines of the United Nations Charter: to prevent the scourge of war; to reaffirm faith in the fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; to respect treaties; and to promote progress and freedom.

These noble goals remain guidelines for the governance of the international community as world leaders meet at the Millennium Summit this month. They have been formulated in the context of an impressive juridical architecture that the 20th century left behind as its heritage for the future: the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. For half a century, the reality on the ground was been marked by a cold war, more than 100 regional hot wars and several genocides. Then the new century ushered in a novelty in the strategic use of violence: terrorism with suicide bombers, with non-state actors using war tactics and attacks on civilians, and provoking equally nontraditional forms of response. At its beginning, the 21st century shows also a persistent gap between rich and poor countries, with the entire African continent further marginalized, and the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic killing some 8,000 people a day.


Questions about the usefulness of the United Nations declarations and agreements seem a logical first step. If the right to life is denied, civil and political liberties ignored and the right to development forgotten, then the temptation follows to look at the United Nations as an old, rusty machine weighed down by a nontransparent bureaucracy or as a supranational authority often distant from the feelings of ordinary people and quite different from the organization meant to serve national governments in specific sectors of their activity.

Obviously the United Nations is not a perfect organization, but it is a necessary one. Good Pope John XXIII had already written in his encyclical Peace on Earth (1963): no state can adequately pursue its own interests in isolation from the rest nor develop as it should. The prosperity and progress of any state is in part consequence and in part cause of the prosperity and progress of all other states. The pope saw the observance of all the rights and freedoms linked to the personal dignity of every human being as the way forward. He wished therefore that the United Nations “may be able progressively to adapt its structure and methods of operation to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks.”

A Flurry of Proposals

Now all players have placed their cards on the table of reform. The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, created by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has published its report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility. In anticipation of the review of the 2000 Millennium Declaration, the secretary general has presented his report, In Larger Freedom:Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights has issued The OHCHR Plan of Action: Protection and Empowerment. States and nongovernmental organizations have taken public positions on the global reform of the United Nations or on changes in specific agencies. In all this flurry of proposals, particular political visibility has been given to the Security Council and its possible enlargement.

But the theme of human rights and the needed institutional framework to defend and promote them have also attracted much attention. In fact, it is becoming clearer that peace and development cannot be sustained unless rooted in human rights. Without a guarantee of the dignity of the human person, issues of security, terrorism, freedom of religion and belief, poverty, the environment and similar themes of primary importance cannot be properly and effectively dealt with. Human rights become the touchstone to measure the soundness of international relations and of the political and legal systems of states.

Examples from the international agenda of the Commission on Human Rights support this understanding. The war on poverty, in its diverse forms and strategies, and the phenomenon of terrorism, in its causes and activities of prevention and repression, both find in human rights a precise framework. Such a framework is made up of ethical values, of principles and judicial norms directed at regulating the behavior of states, the functioning of intergovernmental institutions, and providing space for the contribution of nongovernmental organizations and civil society.

A Council for Human Rights

Against this background, a renewal of the United Nations based on human rights is critical. Mechanisms and procedures for the protection of human rights should take central stage. The 53-country U.N. Commission on Human Rights is under the spotlight. Secretary General Kofi Annan proposes a remarkable change to transform it into a council that would meet more frequently, with a larger regular budget to strengthen its independence, and with provisions that would block egregious transgressors of human rights from being elected to this council. Human rights, along with security and development, are one of the three pillars of the United Nations. There is a general desire that the new council should have a higher rank, either as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly—and not, as it is now, of the Economic and Social Council—or as a council parallel to the Security Council and ECOSOC.

The United Nations Charter (Art. 1, 3) placed human rights among the essential purposes of the organization. A coherent reform would make sure that human rights not only have visibility and priority, but that they also permeate the whole structure of the U.N. system. When, for example, the Security Council envisions the use of force in the most destabilizing situations, a concerted definition for exercising the responsibility to protect human rights, particularly of the innocent, should be reached with the proposed Council on Human Rights. A similar convergence and collaboration should be foreseen with the projected Peace-Building Commission. In addition, credibility for the new body for human rights demands that, while always upholding the universality of human rights, it avoid being an elitist club reserved to a small group of states without the inclusion of regional and cultural sensibilities.

Focus on the Person

Major criticisms of the Commission on Human Rights have been its politicization and the glaring deficit of implementation of the decisions reached. Will the change of name remedy the evident shortcomings? Perhaps a deeper reflection is in order at this moment of transition. The foundation of human rights is at times blurred by cultural differences, religious views, economic theories and behavioral models. In the U.N. context, a pragmatic and utilitarian approach takes hold in the analysis and evaluation of situations, in the interpretations of existing juridical instruments where the human person as such, in his or her physical, social and spiritual dimension, is replaced by sets of categories with parallel fragmented rights. In this way, rights are related to specific interests and no longer to the common good. The meeting point where different intellectual traditions can converge and where the universality of fundamental human rights can be sustained is the human person and the person’s inalienable dignity, a dignity that does not change in relation to geographical coordinates or historical events. A lasting and effective reform cannot move away from this center of gravity that is the human person without losing its bearing and risking a juridical relativism that dangerously fluctuates with the changes of majority opinion.

Many insist that Special Procedures, the group of experts of the Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and the Treaty Bodies will find their appropriate space in the reformed human rights structure. Indeed these subsidiary organs have provided an important advisory and monitoring service. When, however, they move away from the centrality of the person as the source of rights, they then introduce interpretations that in their pragmatic intent, to meet particular interests, do not take into account the concrete consequences in the long run for the common good.

Looking ahead, the reform proposes a new council, a stronger Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, a greater role for the organs of control established by the conventions regarding human rights (Treaty Bodies) and more money for the training of experts and functionaries. The unified procedures for the Treaty Bodies will tend to transform them into a unified system of control on the activity of states in the area of human rights and into a court of judgment.

A Common Human Future

The overall reform of the United Nations aims explicitly at making the protection of human rights a key element of international governance, a synergy among persons, people, governments, civil society and international organizations, capable of intervening in critical areas for the future of the human family: peaceful solution of conflicts, prevention of wars, socio-economic cooperation and sustainability of the environment. A coherent application of the principle of subsidiarity will make it possible to reach these objectives. Suggestions and ideas have to start from below, from a well-informed public opinion capable of formulating its proposals with credibility.

The United Nations reform hopes to lead the organization back to its founding ideals and make it the center of coordination of the activity of the nations of the world. The road to achieve the dream is that of human rights. The balance of power and force among states, alone, will stall the process; but keeping the human person, human dignity and human rights central will provide an opening for human flourishing in our common global future.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years ago
The article by Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, C.S., “United Nations Reform and Human Rights” (9/12) makes the protection of fundamental entitlements the primary objective for the future of the United Nations. May I respectfully suggest that this emphasis overlooks a more pressing need.

In his transmission letter to the secretary general, the chairman of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, Anand Panyarachun of Thailand, insisted that the United Nations can improve its effectiveness “only if efforts are...redoubled to resolve a number of longstanding disputes which continue to fester and feed the new threats we now face.” To his mind, as to mine, the major unresolved conflicts are the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Kashmir and the Korean Peninsula.

Peacemaking (not just peacekeeping) is an essential element of Catholic social thought as well as a paramount objective of a well-lived Christian life. This high purpose applies to the work of collective bodies as well as to individual behavior, and is relevant in international as well as national settings. A peace-building commission within a reformed United Nations would be helpful. The essential problem, however, is the chronic failure of the Security Council to promote the pacific settlement of longstanding disputes through the exercise of the conciliatory authority that has been conferred upon it by Chapter Six of the U.N. Charter.


The latest from america

“The Wife” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” feature female protagonists with strongly contrasting stories.
Michael V. Tueth, S.J.February 20, 2019
Frederic Martel boldly told reporters at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on Feb. 20 that “the great majority” of the more than 200 members of the College of Cardinals are leading double lives.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 20, 2019
Does the Church, as the Body of Christ, offer a response to the sex abuse scandals?
Daniel PhilpottFebruary 20, 2019
You might ask, “Shouldn’t we all pretend to be Jesus?” We should, but that does not seem to have gotten most of us all that far. Perhaps a humbler role is a better beginning.
Terrance KleinFebruary 20, 2019