The very mention of the U.N. is enough to bring extremes of emotion and opinion. For some, it's the epitome of wasteful bureaucracy. For others, it's a worthless talking shop. For still others, it is the hegemony of evil, the omega of apostasy, or the end-time sword of doom.
Even its supporters qualify their opinions and point to areas that need improvement. That the U.N. is very much a human institution is undeniable, and to say that it is highly political is to state the more than obvious. The defects are there for all to see.
But it's what we've got.
"The decision is this for the United Nations: When you say something, does it mean anything? You've got to decide: If you lay down a resolution, does it mean anything?" George W. Bush, U.S. president. The alternative, said Bush in his February 11, 2003, address, was that the U.N. would become "an ineffective, irrelevant, debating society." 1
"It has become a mantra among senior American officials that the United Nations risks irrelevance," comments BBC News Online reporter Tarik Kafala.2
"If the United Nations is 'irrelevant,' it's only because the United States has made it so." Matthew Riemer, columnist, YellowTimes.org.3
"The U.N. has been irrelevant for decades now because of its own inconsistent record." Sherri Muzher, Palestine Chronicle.4
"In a way, Iraq has more or less driven home to leaders around the world that the U.N. is a precious instrument, the U.N. is important. . . . The big countries need the U.N. too." Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general.5
Or even the widespread conspiracy theories that have U.N. black helicopters spying on people, that claim that the U.N. is about to subvert the U.S. Constitution or that troops from China are preparing to invade the U.S. on behalf of the U.N.6
FBI director Louis Freeh said in a 1999 report on the views of some extremist groups that the United Nations "is perceived as an organization bent on taking over the world and destroying American democracy and establishing 'the New World Order.' The New World Order theory holds that, one day, the United Nations will lead a military coup against the nations of the world to form a one-world government. United Nations troops, consisting of foreign armies, will commence a military takeover of America. The United Nations will mainly use foreign troops on American soil because foreigners will have fewer reservations about killing American citizens. Captured United States military bases will be used to help conquer the rest of the world."7
A brief sample, headed "World Government Under the United Nations," reads as follows:
"We should ask the following question of those fellow Officers who may doubt that they will be asked to enforce such a system on the American people, 'Whom do they think will enforce all of this?' Who will make the masses 'fit-in'? Who will 'remove' those who do not fit-in? Will it be the auto mechanics, bankers, school teachers, bakers, or candlestick makers? Or, is it more likely to be Enforcement Officers?
"John E. Rankin, U.S. Congressman: 'The United Nations is the greatest fraud in all History. Its purpose is to destroy the United States.'
"George Bush, New York 1991, 'My vision of a New World Order foresees a United Nations with a revitalized peacekeeping function.' . . . [Also] 'It is the sacred principles enshrined in the UN Charter to which we will henceforth pledge our allegiance.' —UN Building, February 1, 1992.
"Unbelievable! That ought to fry the grits of every lawman and true American that reads this quote. Brother and sister Officers, how many of you are going to take a 'sacred' oath of allegiance to the U.N. World Government?"9
Highly charged views, yet often repeated, and available on a myriad of Web sites.
So, in the context of all these extreme and mutually incompatible views of the U.N., what of contributions to religious freedom and fundamental human rights? Is it a help or hindrance? Is it the potential tool for dictatorial world government, a coming Dark Ages time when freedom of religion and conscience will be denied? Or is the U.N. the savior of democracy and fundamental freedoms, the beacon of hope for the future?
If you have ever attended any kind of U.N. meeting, you know that the most that can be said is "None of the above!" The United Nations is a misnomer—it may be a group of (currently) 191 nations, but it is far from being united. In fact, much time is spent on protocol and procedural issues because of the fractured relationships between nations. In my role of representing church and religious freedom groups at the U.N., the frustration is not so much over its potential as a world hegemony or golden age of universal brotherhood or harbinger of the Apocalypse, but over its ability to get something done on the vital issues that confront our world. Lost at sea in an ocean of paperwork, submerged by points of order and rights to reply, overwhelmed by political waves and international storm surges, it's a wonder the ship is afloat at all. Yet float it does, and the contributions of the U.N., especially in the area of human rights, are sizable and significant. For the U.N. does provide the venue and the structure for global decisions and dialogue, for concrete action on specific problems. It ensures the opportunity for civil society (you and me) to be involved.
So, what of the U.N. record, particularly in reference to religious freedom?
For many of the conspiracy theorists, the U.N. is a destroyer of freedoms. Yet the record does not reveal such a conclusion. From its beginnings the U.N. placed strong emphasis on civil liberties and human rights. These are commented on in the U.N. Charter, and specifically elaborated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On religious freedom, Article 18 is blunt and unequivocal: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."10
Accepting this declaration sets the ground rules for religious freedom and clarifies violations. One of the primary contributions of the U.N. has been to spell out exactly what religious freedom is, and what rights exist in practice. Through the 1948 declaration, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the internationally agreed norms are clearly established.
Indeed, the 1981 declaration also paved the way for the establishment of some structure for the monitoring of religious freedom and for the reporting of violations. It must still be admitted that the legal aspects are weak, since there are few sanctions or legal remedies available. However, through the high commissioner for human rights and the yearly commission and committee, at least some mechanisms are available for the disclosure of religious freedom violations, and it is important for states and nongovernment organizations to take such opportunities to expose the egregious violations of such fundamental human rights.
The fact that there are international standards and a forum for publicizing religious freedom issues is a major contribution of the U.N. that deserves appreciation. In a global context, nations that try to ignore their commitments under the international document discover that they will be called to account.
For example, when I challenged the representative of one extremist regime for the continued imposition of the death penalty on religious converts, I was able to point to the clear language of the U.N. declarations and covenants. Supported by the representative of a European government, we made the blunt point that nations cannot sign human rights documents, make promises and give undertakings, and not expect to be challenged when they violate fundamental religious rights.
The reporting mechanisms, particularly through the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who is an independent expert, provide great opportunities to ensure that repression of religious freedoms does not occur in secret. Countries are required to respond to such reports and requests from the special rapporteur, and while the process that some nations term "naming and shaming" can be controversial, it does at least mean there is some knowledge of what is actually happening in religious freedom trouble spots around the world.
The availability of national representatives at the yearly six-week U.N. Commission on Human Rights11 provides the opportunity for bilateral intervention—and can lead to a kind of third-party resolution between parties in religious freedom disputes. Frequently, appeal to a nation's permanent mission in Geneva or New York can be far more effective than a direct approach to the national government.
Lastly, events such as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights can give opportunity for media attention, providing focus for attention on important ideas and events. Visibility is often key in ensuring continued freedom of religion and conscience, because most dark deeds of intolerance, intimidation, and persecution are attempted in secret.
While the need for structural overhaul of the U.N.'s bureaucratic functions is clear to most, including the current U.N. secretary-general,12 this realization should not be at the expense of acknowledging what has been achieved for religious freedom. The danger is that in the quest to work for a "more efficient" U.N., the vital work of protecting and promoting religious freedom will be lost in the drive for global security and effective government.
While the U.N. is far from perfect, it has clearly defined the importance and scope of religious freedom, and provided opportunities for scrutiny, reporting, and debate. In a time when such freedoms are under increased scrutiny everywhere, when security concerns are seen as "paramount," and when freedom of conscience has been called "a luxury we can no longer afford," the efforts to maintain religious freedom and human rights must be greater now than ever before.
For in the name of defending freedom, how many freedoms can be sacrificed?
Jonathan Gallagher is the United Nations liaison director for the International Religious Liberty Association, based in Washington, D.C. He spends much of his time in New York at the U.N.
1 Los Angeles Times, Feb. 14, 2003.
2 BBC News Online, Mar. 5, 2003.
3 Yellow Times, Feb. 18, 2003.
4 Palestine Chronicle, Mar. 15, 2003.
5 BBC News Online, Sept. 8, 2003. Note also: "Three months after the United States President, George Bush, warned that the UN might become irrelevant, Mr. Annan spoke about the value of multilateral institutions, especially the UN. 'I did warn those who were bashing the UN that they had to be careful because they may need the UN soon.'" Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 1, 2003.
6 As examples, note the following:
"For the radical right, the 'new world order' involves a conspiracy in which the United Nations plays a central role. While it may seem odd to attribute great power to so ineffectual an organization, the right regards the UN as the instrument through which national governments will be destroyed, enabling the Antichrist to gain control of the world. Since any government associated with the UN is deemed to be part of the Antichrist plot, the national government is illegitimate. The right concludes, finally, that groups and localities must defend themselves militarily against an alien, hostile state which is seeking to uproot the Constitution in favor of a 'one-world government.'" Michael Barkun, "Militias, Christian Identity and the Radical Right," The Christian Century, August 2-9, 1995, pp. 738-740. Available at: www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearched.dll/showarticle?item_id=98.
"John Trochmann, a founder of the Montana Militia, constantly warns his followers that a 'world government' will soon be imposed upon the United States. Sinister United Nations helicopters will swoop down on unsuspecting citizens and establish a global regime that will destroy traditional American freedoms." Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Apr. 26, 1999
"Elsewhere in Texas this year, members of a radical militia splinter group planned to attack a July 4 celebration at Fort Hood with semiautomatic weapons. The group was convinced that United Nations troops from China were training there to take over the United States. FBI agents and state police swooped down on the would-be assault squad at a campground near Fort Hood and found seven firearms, 1,600 rounds of ammunition, and a container labeled 'riot smoke.' While most federal prosecutions of extremists have been successful, heavy use of informants and conspiracy charges has met with skepticism from some juries. In February, a federal jury in Washington State found members of the antigovernment Freemen and Washington State Militia guilty of weapons charges. The jurors, however, deadlocked on broader charges of conspiracy to blow up radio towers, a bridge, and a train tunnel to stop U.N. troops from 'invading' from Canada." U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 29, 1997.
7 Louis Freeh, testimony before the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the judiciary, and related agencies on Feb. 4, 1999; www.fbi.gov/pressrm/congress/
congress99/freehct2.htm; cited in iwww.csis.org/burke/
8 Available at, for example, http://land.netonecom.
12 Note, for example, Annan's September 8, 2003, remarks as detailed in U.N. press release SG/SM/8855 available at www.un.org, and also his July 30, 2003, response (SG/SM/8803) to the question How do you ensure that the United Nations remains an essential stage for international security decisions? "This is the only organization where all the governments can come to discuss these issues. In our earlier discussions, I also made it clear that I am not the only one saying this. Governments are telling us, the world and their people that the United Nations is important for them and that they take its decisions seriously. Those governments are also saying, for example, 'If you want us to become involved in Iraq, go to the United Nations and get what we perceive as a United Nations mandate.' So it is an important place not just for convening power; it also brings governments together to discuss common and mutually important issues. And many governments stand by the Charter; they stand by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is important to them, so we need to listen to what the other governments are saying."