The United Nations and Human Rights

What is the role of the United Nations with regard to human rights? And what should it be? How important is the protection of human rights and human freedom to this institution? These questions were raised in several United Nations arenas last week. They were raised once when the United States noted that the proposed resolution on the Secretary General’s report contained no reference to human rights or freedom, and proposed this addition. The draft resolution had already been expanded beyond the specific subject matter of the Secretary General’s report to embrace broader issues. Our suggestion was not enthusiastically received.

Other nations, we were told, would resist the addition of human rights to the resolution. Its purpose, we were told, was to focus on the Charter and on the purposes stated there. When we pointed out that commitment to human rights and freedom were present in the Charter, it was asserted that the resolution should focus only on the most important purposes of the United Nations — and that protection of human rights did not have the same priority as preserving peace, promoting development, or ending the arms race.

Furthermore, it was pointed out, human rights involve individuals, whereas the important purposes of the U.N. involve collectivities.

Eventually resisters reconsidered, resistance waned and human rights were included in the resolution. But the initial absence of concern for human rights violations and reticence about their inclusion were significant. They point to erosion in commitment and clarity concerning human rights and freedom and especially to the existence of ambiguity about their relations to other goals of the Charter and of the United Nations.

The fact is, of course, that the protection of human rights and freedom is identified in the Preamble of the Charter and enumerated among its purposes: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women … have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims …”. According to Chapter One, Article One, “The purposes of the United Nations are to achieve international cooperation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

It was entirely natural that persons concerned with the preservation of international peace should have been committed also to the preservation of human rights and freedom because the two are inexorably linked.

In fact, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is integrally linked to all major political values, as abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms is integrally associated with all the most important political crimes.

There are two principal methods of acting politically in both internal and international affairs: these are the method of consent and the method of violence.

In internal affairs the method of consent means governing with permission of the governed. Consent must be given, it cannot be coerced. Consent can be given only when there is freedom to withhold it — to inquire, discuss, disagree. Institutionalized, the method of consent is democracy.

In external affairs, too, the method of consent means respecting the national independence and sovereign equality of all. It means basing relations among nations on persuasion, cooperation, contract, and requires that nations have the right to disagree, to withhold cooperation. Consent is utterly incompatible with conquest.

The method of consent respects human rights. It encourages initiative, innovation, effort. Societies whose governments rely on the method of consent do not produce refugees.

The method of violence stands in sharp contrast to the method of consent. Applied to the internal affairs of a nation, the method of violence bases power on coercion, compels conformity and honors neither law and custom nor the wishes of the governed. Institutionalized, it is autocracy. In external affairs the method of violence is invasion, occupation, conquest. It respects neither the territorial integrity of nations, nor the right to self determination nor self-government of peoples. The method of violence produces widespread violation of the human rights of its objects and victims. The clearest expression of the method of violence is war. “War,” wrote its greatest theoretician, Karl von Clausewitz, “is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” It occurs in our times when rulers of one nation use physical force to conquer another people. Military force is a means, but as Raymond Aron has noted, “military victory is not the goal.” War is not a sport practised for its own sake. It is a deadly game pursued for political ends. “War,” continued von Clausewitz, “is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument.” It is politics conducted by violence — to the end of establishing control over some populace. War is a way of seeking and winning power by conquest, which stands in the sharpest possible contrast to establishing power by consent.

The method of violence seeks to silence, not to persuade. It is more concerned with power than with truth or freedom or law. It values control over consent. It deprives those against whom it is used of basic human rights — of their right to life, liberty, security, due process of law. Today, the method of violence deprives the people of Poland of their right to assemble, their right to organize independent trade unions and to bargain collectively, their right to a voice in the basic decisions of the society.

Applied across borders, as in Afghanistan and Cambodia today, the method of violence deprives whole societies of self-determination, security and peace. The method of violence is used against these peoples, social institutions, religious practices, economies, and governments.

Violence is an assault on the human dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms of its objects. It relies on armies, guns, bombs, poison gas, mycotoxins to coerce submission and secure compliance.

The method of violence produces what is here called “mass exoduses,” that is, a tragic flow of persons fleeing from their native lands in fear for their lives and freedom. This relationship was recognized in Resolution 309, adopted on March 1, 1980, by the Human Rights Commission, which noted that

… large exoduses of persons and groups are frequently the result of violations of human rights…

and again in the recent study of the Special Rapporteur, which asserted:

In all the situations taking place during the past decade, violations of this spirit, and frequently of this letter, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its Preamble must be recognized. The rule of law, which is the only guarantee of just treatment of the individual, was simply nonexistent in many of the countries from which exodus took place.

Given the incompatibility of violence with human rights and freedom, one might suppose that the U.N.’s concern with human rights would recognize the method of violence in internal and external affairs as incompatible with the Charter and destructive of human rights. With shock, one learns that in many cases the use of force and violation of human rights are not seen as a violation of the Charter relevant to U.N. bodies with responsibility for protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Some violations are defined out of existence, some are simply ignored. Only a very limited class of violence and violations are deemed relevant to U.N. purposes today.

Most of the questions of human rights with which United Nations bodies have concerned themselves in recent years are of a single kind. U.N. human rights bodies concern themselves with relatively underdeveloped non-Communist nations, which are not members of any cohesive bloc; which are or have recently been the target of a national liberation movement with important ties to the Soviet bloc; and with countries which have sought to protect themselves by using government violence against guerrilla violence.

Relatively few governments meet all these criteria for attention. There are many small developing countries, but most are protected by their membership in powerful blocs. Furthermore, not all small developing countries are the active objects of revolutionary violence, and not all targeted governments resist violent assaults. Some simply succumb.

Most of the human rights violations singled out for attention in the United Nations are Latin — not, certainly, because the greatest human rights violations of our century have taken place there. The Holocaust, Gulag, Pol Pot’s genocidal utopia, Vietnam’s labor camps, Idi Amin’s slaughterhouse — have won for Europe, Asia and Africa records of human rights violations unmatched in the Western Hemisphere. Nonetheless, as our Venezuelan colleague noted in this Committee last week, United Nations human rights bodies show a “special taste for those small countries which are apparently lacking in strategic resources or wide political audiences.”

An Islamic or African country which becomes the target of violent guerrilla assault would be protected against United Nations human rights action by its involvement in a web of protective alliances — regional organizations, the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-77, or some other bloc.

Even though their records of internal repression and external aggression are clear and well-known, countries linked to the Soviet Union are protected against charges of human rights violations by their membership in the Soviet bloc which, like other blocs, functions as a mutual protection society. The fact that many members of the Soviet bloc are also members of other groups extends their access and influence. Cuba’s status as President of the Non-Aligned Movement symbolizes this pattern of overlapping membership and extended influence.

There is another reason that the Soviet Union and its bloc are successful in avoiding the attention of United Nations human rights groups. It is because they have been very successful in selling, here in the United Nations and in influential circles outside this body, a perverse doctrine of violence and human rights which stands traditional conceptions on their heads: where traditionally states have been defined as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, now liberation movements are seen as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

According to this upside-down view of human rights and self-defense, revolutionary violence — that is, violence committed by those linked to the Soviet Union and its clients — is defined as a just protest against an unjust society. Such violence may result in dead civilians, bombed school children, widespread economic destruction, but it will not be considered a violation of human rights if it is committed in the name of revolution against any society whose citizens do not enjoy all the rights listed in the Universal Declaration, that is, most of the societies in the world today. Whole peoples may have their homes and villages burned, their crops destroyed, their cattle killed, may be forcibly “relocated” in camps without provoking any interest or activity in the Third Committee or the Human Rights Commission. People may be invaded, conquered, herded into cities, driven over borders, their fields tainted with toxins, their air poisoned with yellow rain, without them being regarded as victims of human rights violations. They have their electric plants dynamited, their coffee crops destroyed, their leaders murdered, without being regarded as victims of human rights violations— providing that the perpetrators of this violence, of these gross abuses, are “progressive” national liberation movements, armed, trained, serviced by the professional purveyors of revolutionary violence. Only governments that seek to repress this violence will be cited for human rights violations.

In a recent speech before this Committee, which singled out the governments of Central America for special negative mention a colleague asserted:

My government opposes violence wherever it occurs as a method to solve political or social problems. But at the same time we cannot accept the argument that an oppressed people striving for legitimate social and economic reforms of its own society should be automatically classified as terrorists.

Whether a given group is or is not classified as terrorists would, one should think, depend on whether they use terror against civilian populations. During the past year the economy of El Salvador has been devastated, the poor people of that poor nation deprived of the fruits of their labor by repeated, carefully targeted guerrilla attacks — a strange method, indeed, for promoting social and economic reform, but a familiar method of conquest.

Small bands of violent men have discovered in our times that, by the skillful use of violence and propaganda, they can win power against overwhelming numbers. They begin with terror which has been aptly defined as “the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.” Such deliberate use of terror to produce a “revolutionary situation,” has become the preferred tactic of contemporary revolutionary cadres.

“The process,” wrote one student of revolutionary violence, “begins with a small group of individuals working to destabilize a society through assassinations and other violent acts. These are often described as pointless, but in fact they have very astute purposes: intimidation of the general population; destruction of the economy by frightening off capital and skilled workers; and a demonstration to possible political opponents that these madmen will stop at nothing.”

Neither the method nor the goal have changed since they were described in a Revolutionary Catechism by nineteenth century nihilists. They are: “to use every means in (their) power to foster and spread those wrongs and those evils which will finally break the patience of our people and force them to a general revolt.”

In our times, Carlos Marighella’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrila, provides a graphic description of this process of violence, whose aim is to create a situation

… where the government has no alternative except to intensify repression. The police roundups, house searches, arrests of innocent people and of suspects, closing off streets, make life in the city unbearable.

Marighella continued, in the wake of these repressive measures,

… the general sentiment is that the government is unjust, incapable of solving problems, and resorts purely and simply to the physical liquidation of its opponents.

Eventually, as repression grows,

… the political situation in the country is transformed into a military situation in which the militarists appear more and more to be the ones responsible for errors and violence, while the problems in the lives of the people become truly catastrophic.

During this critical period, Marighella counseled, the guerrilla

… must become more aggressive and violent, resorting without letup to sabotage, terrorism, expropriations, assaults, kidnappings and executions, heightening the disastrous situation in which the government must act.

This now familiar cycle is accompanied by a chorus of moral outrage from a self-designated constituency of conscience which deplores all efforts of governments and societies to defend themselves against guerrilla violence.

“Demands for change,” said our U.N. colleague, speaking of the beleaguered countries of Central America, “have been met with terror and violence by government forces and groups of the extreme right, supported or condoned by the state power.”

One wonders which demands for change did he mean. Did he mean those communicated by the specialists in violence that destroyed 34 bridges and 145 electrical transmission towers in El Salvador? Or was he thinking of the businesses closed by guerrilla action — putting more than 18,000 Salvadorans out of work — or perhaps the 700 buses destroyed? He could not have been referring to the kidnappings of two soccer teams and 120 spectators from a rural stadium in Salvador, for that was reported in the press only today. Probably, he was not speaking of El Salvador at all, since that country’s democratic elections and broad land reform, carried out under external assault, must inspire admiration. Furthermore, it is presumably clear to all the world that demands for change can be asserted through Salvador’s democratic processes by anyone willing to use the method of consent rather than that of violence.

Perhaps our colleague was talking about Guatemala — Salvador’s neighbor, which as recently as three years ago had a high growth rate, a growing middle class and good economic prospects —until it, too, became a target of guerrilla violence. This violence was conducted as usual by small guerrilla bands, advised, armed and otherwise assisted by Cuba and bloc countries, infiltrated into that country by well-known routes for the purpose of wreaking violence, sowing destruction, provoking ever greater repression, fear, alienation, and for the purpose, finally, of coming to power.

The method of violence is applied on a daily basis in Guatemala, where guerrillas make their demands for social justice by bombing bridges, burning gas stations, telephone and telegraph installations, mining roads, shooting shop owners, kidnapping businessmen, terrorizing school girls, slaying Indian villagers who resist paying “war taxes” and engaging in an ongoing total war against the Guatemalan people. No reasonable, fair observer could imagine that the method of violence used by Guatemala’s guerrilla is merely a reaction to government provocation. It is a brutal, ruthless campaign conducted by specialists in violence determined to seize power and govern by force.

Perhaps in talking of government repression and provocation, my colleague was really thinking of Poland, where the government has used heavy-handed military force against an unarmed population, repressing all moves toward free association, denying all liberties, using the power of the State against the bare hands and simple courage of Solidarity.

He could not really have meant that a society has no right of self-defense against armed bands in its midst: that Uruguay had no right of self-defense against the Tupemaros; that the Federal Republic of Germany had no right to defend itself against the Bader Meinhoff gang; that the Italian government has no right to defend itself against the Red Brigades; that the government of Spain has no right to defend itself against Basque terrorists; or Salvador has no right of self-defense against the guerrillas who boycott its elections, that attack its co-ops, murder its peasants; or that the people of Guatemala, who have long suffered under harsh, corrupt governments, must now passively accept new tyrants who, if one can judge by their Nicaraguan comrades-in-arms, will be still more repressive.

The specialists in violence have correctly understood that terrorism and guerrilla war pose extremely difficult problems for organized societies. They do provoke a spiral of repression, chaos, murder. Even strong, sophisticated governments and people, experienced in both the use and restraint of power, have difficulty controlling organized political crime. But a conception of human rights that ignores the guerrilla’s war against civilians and focuses exclusively on a government’s reprisals is no conception of human rights at all. It is a method of politics which seeks victory for a certain kind of Soviet-sponsored “liberation.”

Morally serious persons cannot maintain that terror wreaked on a civilian population by revolutionary movements is liberation, while violence committed by a government responding to that guerrilla is repression. Morally serious persons cannot maintain that national liberation movements have the right to use violence against civilians, economies, societies and governments and that those societies have no right to defend themselves; that violence conducted in the name of revolution is legitimate; that violence used by governments and societies to defend themselves against guerrillas is illegitimate.

It will not wash. The facts are clear — the method of violence is the method of tyranny in internal affairs and aggression in international relations. Modern tyrants use violence against their own people and violence against their neighbors. In our times, movements which seek total power by terrorist violence, govern by violence.

The continued widespread abuse of human rights in our world constitutes a challenge to all peoples and governments committed to promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms. A serious approach would take account of all deprivations of liberty, law and security committed by organized political groups. A serious approach to human rights would take account of the use of lethal toxins and gases against the H’Mong, of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese imprisoned and held under brutal conditions in labor camps far from home; of the continuing human hemorrhage of refugees from Southeast Asia’s Communist nations into the China Sea. A serious approach would take into account the repression and banning of Solidarity, the continuing imprisonment of most of its leaders; of the denial of free association, collective bargaining, free speech, throughout Eastern Europe. It would take account of the Soviet Union’s continuing, massive, flagrant violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of the Afghan people, of the repression of the Helsinki Watch Committee, of the brutal imprisonment of Anatoly Scharansky, of the abuse of psychiatric treatment, the denial of the right to emigrate, and the repression of Andrei Sakharov.

A serious concern with human rights would also require taking account of the flight of more than thirty thousand Ugandans across the border to Rwanda, and of repression in other African states where freedom is denied and due process of law violated. It would take account of Apartheid in South Africa.

A serious concern with human rights would take account of the widespread denial of legal and social rights of women and of “untouchables.” And, in the context of all those problems, a serious concern for human rights would doubtless also take account of the deprivation of human rights by some groups and some governments in some Latin American republics. It would take account of Chile’s exiles, Argentina’s desaparecidos, of Right as well as Left violence in Guatemala and Salvador, but also of the harsh treatment of Nicaragua’s Miskita, Suma and Rama Indians, its repression of press freedom and of the large number of political prisoners in Cuba — some of them have their sentences arbitrarily resentenced in clear violation of Cuba’s own laws and of civilized practice.

The people and government of the United States believe in the method of consent, and we deplore all, I repeat all, recourse to the method-of violence in internal and international affairs. We urge, even demand, that societies under attack practice the disciplines of freedom and law even as they defend themselves.

The United States is willing and ready to join other nations in dealing seriously with these serious problems. Human rights and fundamental freedoms should be our goal and standard, rather than a political weapon used selectively by the strong against the weak, the organized against the organized. We will not be a party to the further perversion and selective application of these values. We will not contribute our votes to strengthening those who seek political gain by the method of violence.

We will join our colleagues in any serious, reasonable and fair effort to protect and promote human rights. We are ready when you are.


  • Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

    Jeane Duane Jordan Kirkpatrick (December 19, 1926 – December 7, 2006) was an American ambassador and an ardent anticommunist. After serving as Ronald Reagan's foreign policy adviser in his 1980 campaign and later in his Cabinet, the longtime Democrat-turned-Republican was nominated as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and became the first woman to hold this position.

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