Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights, by Rosa Freedman

Conor Gearty on why the United Nations is successful at developing and promoting human rights but fails in protecting them

September 4, 2014

This book contains its own penance for heretical views. Pick it up from chapter 12 and you read a sympathetic account of how the United Nations largely does its best with regard to the protection and promotion of human rights. The work of the various experts who travel the world under UN special procedures doing good is noted and admired (“a key mechanism that works”); universal periodic review (under which all states are given a human rights road test from time to time) is acknowledged to be new and to have potential; various reforms to improve the system, from the radical (a new world court of human rights?) to mere tweaks (a reform of this or that bit of UN procedures) are sympathetically considered. But if “it is not all doom and gloom”, as one of the late chapter headings puts it, is there any gloom and doom at all?

Here is the “heretical” behaviour for which the author may subconsciously have wished to atone. The big-picture point in the book is that although the UN may be OK at developing and promoting rights, it is utterly hopeless at protecting them. To make matters worse, this is a failure that is built into the very structure of the organisation: “Promotion activities rely on politics and diplomacy, on cooperation and engagement, on discussion and dialogue. Those same strengths that are needed for promoting rights are weaknesses when it comes to protecting rights.” The middle five chapters in particular take the reader through a litany of failure: South Africa, Israel, Darfur, Belarus, North Korea and Cuba among the places; post-colonial attitudes, great power interactions and the bad treatment of refugees among the large themes. Even the occasional “good guys” on their “human rights pedestals” – Canada, the Republic of Ireland – are there on false pretences. The author is a kind of negative Dr Pangloss, finding horror everywhere in the worst of all possible worlds.

And what to do? Each of the five core chapters “presents examples of how politicisation undermines the UN’s protection role, taken together these help to explain why the UN is unable to protect individuals from human rights abuses”. The problem is those pesky “nations” in the United Nations – it’s hard on the UN to attack it so savagely for being stuck at its inception with uniting states not people. The answer to the problem lies, the author believes, in “a conversation…not just at the UN or diplomatic level or amongst the human rights elite, but also amongst the wider public”. OK, so let’s really organise the public, arrange them in sensible geographic shapes and of course we will need them to choose representatives, as we can’t have the whole world in on the discussion. Whoops: we have just (re)invented nation states. The “wider public” is like “education”: the answer to everything – and therefore nothing.

Failing to Protect is written in a strongly journalistic style, which (for me anyway) is an argument in its favour. There is nothing wrong with drawing the reader in with stories before getting to the main point – although it does position the book as aimed at a (very) general market. Chapters one to five give the reader a guide to the UN so gentle that it could be included as reading for a very early classroom discussion on the UN. Undergraduates may find it a little basic, although the critical material is valuable for the strength of its convictions (until the penance begins in chapter 12). If you want a short, readable guide to a field you feel you need to know a bit about, and an argument to react to as well, then this is the book for you.

Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicisation of Human Rights

By Rosa Freedman
Hurst, 224pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781849044097
Published 3 July 2014

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