Photo Credit: Flash 90
United Nations Building, New York City

{Originally posted to the Council on Foreign Relations website}

The United Nations General Assembly is about to open, with the traditional lead-off speech by the president of Brazil followed by the president of the United States. The speeches and activities this year will, as usual, be a mix of the interesting and the dull, the consequential and the useless, the honest and the hypocritical.


Whatever the speeches say, why can’t the UN get more done to promote freedom? The Preamble to the UN Charter says the organization’s purpose is “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” but the organization has at best a very mixed record on doing so.

The answer is clear: so many member states are themselves dictatorships that engage in horrible human rights violations—and they stick together. The latter point is key: the worst countries are far more united in protecting human rights abuses than the democracies are in protecting human rights.

One important mechanism for this protection of human rights abuses is the so-called “Like-Minded Group,” consisting usually of Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bhutan, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. As a superb new Human Rights Watch report on China’s own abuses of the UN system, entitled The Costs of International Advocacy, states:

These countries have demonstrated political solidarity in the [Security] Council and have worked together to weaken the universality of human rights standards and resist the Council’s ability to adopt country-specific approaches. They have shielded repressive governments from scrutiny by filling speakers’ lists with promoters of these countries’ human rights records during Universal Periodic Reviews, and giving uncritical statements from friendly governments and Government-Organized NGOs (GONGOs).

What a list of countries! A rogue’s gallery, with only North Korea missing from the list. What they are “like-minded” about is jailing dissidents, preventing freedom of the press, corrupting or preventing free elections, and repressing human freedom. And what is India doing in this rotten club? Surely it is time for India, whose foreign policy is steadily moving away from the third-world nonsense of past decades, to reconsider. If guilt by association has any weight, India’s own interests suggest that it should not be in this group.

The point is that the democracies need to get better organized. The Human Rights Watch report on China shows the remarkable attention China devotes to twisting, subverting, and undermining UN activities of all sorts—far more activity than the democratic countries together undertake to protect UN bodies and guarantee their integrity. This would be another good project for the excellent U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, though it must obviously be a long-term effort that will require the work of more than one administration in Washington and more than one U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. And it will require a determined effort not only by the United States, but by democracies old and new around the globe. We need to show the same commitment, shrewdness, and energy in rescuing the United Nations that many of the worst countries in the world demonstrate in crippling it.


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Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor under Pres. George W. Bush.