Shadow Government

On human rights, the U.N. confuses affirmation with derivation

Amid the coverage of the massacre of American personnel in Libya and the Obama administration’s response that has led to charges of a cover-up, little else in foreign policy has made the news. But out of the U.N. on October 2, we learned how the U.N. bureaucracy is thinking about these incidents, and in so ...

Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images
Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the coverage of the massacre of American personnel in Libya and the Obama administration’s response that has led to charges of a cover-up, little else in foreign policy has made the news. But out of the U.N. on October 2, we learned how the U.N. bureaucracy is thinking about these incidents, and in so doing we learn what the U.N. thinks it has accomplished with regard to the existence of human rights. In the person of Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, we can understand how out of touch the U.N. leadership is regarding the concept of human rights and their origins, not to mention history and political theory.

Eliasson, a much respected Swedish diplomat, held a press conference earlier in the month on a range of issues, but he also talked about the infamous video that offended Muslims and he did so in the context of the continuing efforts of some Islamic member states to pass a "blasphemy" resolution. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the U.N. leadership generally have implied that they support the notion that the exercise of free speech — which the U.N. is pledged to uphold — carries with it dangers to the peace and so not only should people be wary of this problem, but the U.N. should have a role in mitigating the damage that could ensue. 

That’s bad enough, that the U.N., which affirms the right of every human being to speak freely should at the same time warn, discourage, and perhaps even try to legislate against those who exercise that right if someone is offended to the point that they can’t control themselves from engaging in retributive violence. But then Eliasson, in his remarks at the press conference, went very far off course, delving into matters of political theory and philosophy that made him and the U.N. look not just scary, but foolish. To borrow from Talleyrand, "it was worse than a crime, it was a blunder."

In the quote from the presser below, Eliasson is trying to explain how we should all think about the issue of free speech in the global context. Even as he affirms the basic human right of free speech and expression, he delves deeper to opine on the consequences that can ensue from the exercise of the right when some can take offense at what they hear. In doing this, he reveals why so many in the West, particularly in the United States, perceive the U.N. and its bureaucracy as hostile to American notions of rights. 

Eliasson says that in respecting the rights of others to speak freely, we should remember that:

…the respect for the value and beauty of this right, that provocations, a lack of respect towards others, in a world where there is enough of contradictions, antagonism and even hatred, that we should recognize that you have this gift given to us by the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights, but it also implies some type of responsibility to use that in such a way that you don’t cause situations; which brings me to the third point, namely, of course, always strong reactions, condemnations of the violence, as a result of the provocation. So you have to have to keep in mind, yes, this is the basis for, I hope, most of the countries in the world — the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, since this is in the Universal Declaration — but that this also is a privilege that we have, which in my view involves also the need for respect, the need to avoid provocations, in a world where we have enough of contradictions and hatred; but that when you respond to the provocations, and actually those who wanted to provoke had succeeded with the violence and the results of the violence.  

Did you catch that? The human right of free speech and expression is a "gift" of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, it is a "privilege" to be able to speak freely, a privilege apparently afforded to us by the U.N.  

Put aside for a moment that Eliasson makes the typical mush of things (as did the president, our U.N. ambassador and our secretary of state) by implying a moral equivalency argument to the video and the violence. What is most striking is the assertion that our rights come from the U.N. and that they are a privilege granted to us. That is not something even the Charter or the Declaration assert, and for good reason since none of the drafters believed any such thing.  

I expect the U.N. leadership to speak in ways that suggest a moral equivalence between the video and the violence that erupted in the Muslim world. If our current administration does that, certainly the U.N would. But what is breathtaking — and quite revealing — is that the number two at the U.N. would articulate boldly what he knows perfectly well no American leader thinks (or at least would dare to say, no matter how far to the left he or she is). American political theory, indeed that of Western Civilization as it developed via the Anglo-American and even the (non-violent) French Enlightenments, holds that our rights are bequeathed to us by God or at least by Nature and that they are not the gift of any government. Government has one and only one role in them: to recognize them and ensure that they are respected. It is a dangerous flirtation with tyranny to suggest that any governing authority can extend or revoke these rights (no matter how weak and ineffectual it is, as in the case of the U.N.). 

It is not a stretch to believe Eliasson thinks rights come from governments and that he meant what he said; after all, he’s a smart man and an accomplished diplomat. What is sad and depressing is that the United States government did not immediately issue a rejoinder and set the record straight on what the United States understands the U.N. Charter and the Declaration to be all about. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the next administration to set the record straight. 

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