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Why The United Nations Protects Empires While Failing To Protect Human Rights

Posted in Act Out!, Creative Commons, Journalism, and Video

Kit O’Connell and Eleanor Goldfield co-wrote this segment of Act Out!

Welcome to Act Out! I’m Eleanor Goldfield and this is your tipping point.

So, you might be surprised to learn that Saudi Arabia recently gained a seat on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

That’s right — a country where male guardianship requires that women get permission to do everything from receive an education to travel, a country where women can not drive or leave the house without proper head-to-toe covering – and when they do everything is gender segregated — that Saudi Arabia was given a three year term as a member of the U.N. agency whose sole mission is to promote gender equality and women’s rights. Take a moment with that.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a nonprofit that tries to keep the international body accountable called the move “absurd — and morally reprehensible.”

Absurd as it may be — and it is fucking ridiculous — what’s even more absurd is that the appointment isn’t a sign that something is wrong at the U.N.

A peacekeeper wearing the blue helmet of the United Nations holds a rifle while standing in front of a U.N. outpost during a field exercise in Chile. (Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Air Force / JoAnn S. Makinano, public domain)

It’s kinda business as usual. In reality, the UN has far more to do with maintaining the status quo of global capitalism than with promoting human rights, or peace and prosperity. While this alliance has existed for decades, this new old news is more vital amid growing global instability, and the increasing influence of the far-right on the U.S. and other world governments that pay the U.N.’s budget.

When people think of the UN, they typically think of do-gooder celebrities like Angelina Jolie or Emma Watson speaking boldly about women’s rights, children’s rights, war and famine. Or you think of sweeping resolutions that seek to better the lives of people around the globe.

And just to be clear, I think it’s great that celebrities are using their fame to talk about shit that matters and not just sell shampoo — but these faces of the U.N. are more of a beautiful facade than an indication of the workings inside. The workings inside being of course, the members of the U.N. and their agendas. To start, let’s take a quick look at some of the countries currently on the UN Human Rights Council:

Brazil: A masked federal police officer aims a rifle while another crouches nearby. March 28, 2012. (Flickr / André Gustavo Stumpf, CC license)
A massive candlelit vigil in Victoria Park, Hong Kong on June 4, 2009, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Wikimedia Commons / Ethan Kan, CC SA)
  • How about China? Besides the overtly authoritarian regime that routinely imprisons activists, artists, lawyers and intellectuals, China pointedly limits, if not fully restricts, the rights to assemble, free speech and free press. But wait — it gets worse: this year, a report by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders outlined a brand new list of “draconian laws” giving police greater power to criminalize human rights activities. Yes, activities for human rights. How’s that seat at the Human Rights table feeling? A little awkward?
Uniformed Congolese soldiers hold their weapons while on parade. April 11, 2011. (Flickr / ENOUGH Project CC NC ND license)
  • Or how about the Congo — where less than two months ago the bodies of two U.N. experts were found after having gone missing during one of the U.N.’s “peacekeeping” missions — missions that have historically failed HORRIBLY — which we’ll get to in a minute. The Congo is embroiled in a quagmire of violence — which includes the use of child soldiers, forced labor, rape, disappearances and torture. The U.N.’s own Joint Human Rights office in the Congo documented 500 human rights violations in 2016 alone.
Activists chant and wave flags in Egypt’s Tahrir Square on May 12, 2011. (Flickr / Gigi Ibrahim, CC license)
  • Or how about Egypt — you may recall from way back in Episode 48, we heard from an Egyptian activist who wouldn’t show her face or give her real name for fear of retaliation from the Egyptian government for speaking out on human rights abuses currently taking place in her country.
File: ISIS parades through the desert on stolen trucks. (Flickr / Day Ddonaldson)
  • Iraq — the home of, as in it’s a part of their name — of ISIS.
In this Nov. 25, 2014 photograph, activists in Portland, Oregon march for Ferguson with a banner reading “The Whole System Is Guilty.” (Flickr / Sarah Mirk)

Although I guess you could say that most of the shit going down there is directly tied to to the United States who by the way, is also on the human rights council — because blue lives matter, black ones don’t, money is for war not education, healthcare or clean water and air — we’re good at killing people and it’s fun — more prisons, detention centers and black sites, fuck poor people, fuck women, oh unless you’re also a woman — coz if you are, we own your body — have more babies, no you can’t have contraception because Jesus — immigrants go home, except the white ones — oh, fuck indigenous people and it’s always profit over people and planet. Did I forget anything? Probably … Be it using chemical weapons on our own people, torturing them, caging them or watching them slowly die from curable diseases, our own inclusion on the Human Rights Council is a fucking insult to both the word human and rights.

Saudi Arabian women in abaya at the airport. April 19, 2012. (Flickr / Matthias Catón, CC NC ND license)

Meanwhile, circling back to Saudi Arabia, yeah — they’re also on the Human Rights Council — where in March 2016, they objected to a Human Rights Council report on torture, stating that while “torture was an act that should not be tolerated” the Saudis nonetheless had “serious concerns” because “the report included 65 references to sexual orientation and was an attempt to use the eradication of torture to promote other issues, which lacked any ground in international law.”

In other words, Saudi Arabia is essentially arguing that torture is only wrong if it’s used on straight people, because LGBTQIA people have absolutely no rights under international law. Now, not only does Saudi Arabia torture a lot of straight people, queer folks are regularly imprisoned, tortured, and even executed by the Saudis. So their statement isn’t just horrendous, it’s also just a lie.

And so, the U.N. Human Rights Council claims to be “a forum empowered to prevent abuses, inequity and discrimination, protect the most vulnerable, and expose perpetrators” but – Hmmmm — if “Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief,” as Hillel Neuer of UN Watch declared, having these and other human rights violators on the council to prevent human rights violations is like … putting Monsanto in charge of your food … er, a racist bigot in charge of the Justice Department … or — I got it — like calling yourself part of the resistance when your entire career has been built on ignoring or crushing the voices of resistance calling out your corruption, war hawking and shilldom.

Yeah, something like that.

A United Nations peacekeeper from Norway holds his helmet as a Hercules C-130 transport plane lands at Sarajevo airport in the summer of 1992. (Wikimedia Commons / Mikhail Evstafiev, CC SA license)

Now how about the U.N.’s so-called “peacekeeping” actions?

In one of the United Nations most notorious and shocking failures, efforts to bring stability to Bosnia after the breakup of Yugoslavia backfired so badly that thousands of lives were lost to ethnic cleansing.

On July 11, 1995, near the end of the three year Bosnian civil war, “Bosnian Serb forces swept into the eastern Srebrenica enclave and executed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the days that followed, dumping their bodies into pits. It was the worst massacre in post-Second World War European history. The U.N. had previously declared the town one of the safe areas, to be ‘free from any armed attack or any other hostile act.'”

A team of 600 Dutch U.N. peacekeepers were stationed in the town to protect the civilian populace, but they had disarmed the town’s defenders as part of their duties, and they refused to return the weapons even as the Bosnian Serbs began shelling the enclave in preparation for the invasion, leaving the residents helpless when they were overrun.

A U.N. vehicle navigates the rubble strewn streets of Port-au-Prince after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. February 10, 2010. (Wikimedia Commons / ABr / Marcello Casal Jr, CC license)

And rather than learn their lesson from the failure, it set the West on a course toward even more and more involved so-called humanitarian interventions, perhaps culminating in the infamous disaster in Haiti, which that country is still reeling from to this day.

Last year, the U.N. was forced to admit its role in a devastating Cholera epidemic that began after the disease was imported onto the island by the very peacekeepers intended to help with recovery after the 2010 earthquake. In all, some 10,000 died and at least 800,000 were sickened with a disease that causes severe, even deadly dehydration brought on by constant diarrhea and vomiting — one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.

The U.N. spent years denying their responsibility and the need to offer reparations to the people they’d harmed until the evidence became undeniable. In August 2016, the New York Times obtained a confidential report written by Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who worked as an advisor to the U.N.

In the document, Alston admitted that the Haiti incident had perhaps fatally tarnished the humanitarian veneer of international body by providing “highly combustible fuel for those who claim that U.N. peacekeeping operations trample on the rights of those being protected, and it undermines both the U.N.’s overall credibility and the integrity of the Office of the Secretary-General.”

Yeah, I can’t imagine why killing 10,000 people through carelessness and ineptitude might suggest the U.N. has a credibility problem.

A Palestinian family searches through the rubble of their home in the northern Gaza Strip. (Flickr / U.N. Photo / Shareef Sarhan, CC NC ND license)

And bizarrely, even when the U.N. does have the right idea, however underfunded and ineffective those efforts tend to be, they are frequently attacked in the U.S. In late April, all 100 Senators signed off on a letter condemning the U.N. for its supposed ‘anti-Israel’ bias — and by bias they simply mean that the U.N. sometimes tries hold Israel to account for a fraction of their almost uncountable war crimes and human rights violations. Even well known liberals defenders of human rights like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris signed on, because oppressing and murdering Palestinians always has bipartisan support. And while the Senators were right to call out the U.N. for ignoring human rights violations in places like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, that doesn’t excuse the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestine — or indeed the U.S. government’s own human rights violations or our support of Israel in theirs.

The Senators even reserved special criticism for the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, the nonviolent attempt by Palestinians to put economic pressure on the Israeli government to change its genocidal policies. “The U.N. funds and maintains a number of standing committees, which far too often serve no purpose other than to attack Israel and inspire the anti-Israel boycott, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) movement. These committees must be eliminated or reformed.”

So, basically, the Palestinians are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. They’re condemned if they nonviolently resist through economic boycotts, and if they dare to violently resist the occupation — which, remember, is a basic human right of all oppressed people — they are shunned and condemned while U.S.-made, Israeli-launched bombs and missiles rain down on Gaza.

So, then, what’s to be done? Will the U.N. respond with a bold middle finger and stand tall against Israeli apartheid? Yeah, that’s unlikely. As a founding member, the U.S. holds more sway over the U.N. than most would choose to acknowledge or accept.

The U.N. General Assembly hall in New York City. (Wikimedia Commons / Patrick Gruban, w/ Pine, CC SA license)

And therein lies some of the problem. The U.N. more often serves as a crutch for capitalism, a status quo defender rather than a real bringer of justice. Its shiny veneer and good works bolstered by the charity industrial complex are ruled over by the very real issue that they are made up of warring human rights violators intent on perpetuating war, economic and certainly ecological disasters. Simultaneously, they have no control over the actions of these states. It’s like inviting friends over to do a habitat for humanity project, they end up torching the place and then you can’t do anything to stop them or bring them to justice.

And yet, if we are to suggest that the world would greatly benefit from an organization focused on global human and indeed environmental rights, we have to acknowledge that shitty states will be a part of the conversation. To be sure, there is no easy answer, but perhaps our path forwards rests in rethinking our notions of sovereignty.

In his short book, “Political Ideals,” Bertrand Russell makes the case for absolute sovereignty of autonomous groups or nations when it comes to internal affairs. However, as he puts it,

“There cannot be secure peace in the world, or any decision of international questions according to international law, until states are willing to part with their absolute sovereignty as regards their external relations, and to leave the decision in such matters to some international instrument of government. … it is necessary that there should be a body capable of enacting international law.”

Russell goes on to suggest a basic structure for this and as the red flag of “but who polices the police” rises in my mind, the bottom line is and must be, regardless of what happens with the U.N. or after: that we are the checks and balances. The people are the ones who must always watch the watchers and ensure that our rights are protected. The U.N., much like the Democratic Party, may very well be beyond repair — and their inability to act on any good ideas that they do have make them a toothless nuisance even when intentions are good.

As we move forwards, Russell’s suggestion is something to consider, the U.N. is something to watch with a healthy side-eye glance and the recognition of our duty and indeed our power in creating peace and stability as individuals rather than nations — is something that we cannot afford to ignore.


Why The United Nations Protects Empires While Failing To Protect Human Rights by Kit O’Connell and Eleanor Goldfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at