Keeping the Lid On

Four Failures: A Report on the UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights in Chile, Guatemala, Iran and Poland

a report from Americas Watch, Asia Watch, and Helsinki Watch

The grounds for appreciating the United Nations are concededly unextensive; but its detractors may unjustly undervalue it as a convenience for Americans. The UN’s uses for stimulating individual American careers are the most familiar of its contributions to what we take to be the national welfare. One United Nations veteran, a Westerner with a sardonically detached view of the fools of both hemispheres, contemplated the apotheosis of former ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and observed, “You know, one of your public men or women can come here dim in the general consciousness, slang us awhile, and go forth to shine eternally. Maybe we should charge a springboard fee.”

We can thank the UN for more even than the refulgence of Mme. Kirkpatrick. Gibbon once remembered that he had sat in Parliament and cast his vote in accordance with his nation’s desires if not always her interest. And, by that standard, the UN can be a serviceable instrument for our nation’s desires.

Americas Watch, Asia Watch, and Helsinki Watch have lately issued a study of the UN Human Rights Commission’s dealings with Chile, Guatemala, Poland, and Iran. These three watch groups, private institutions all, are notable for their ecumenically unselective distaste for despotisms East or West.

Poland has a bond of bondage with the Soviet Union. Iran is a free-floating contagion. Guatemala and Chile are our allies. Whatever the polarities between them, all four are similarly cavalier about human rights, and all four have been treated with diplomatic caution by the UN Human Rights Commission.

The Watch committees’ study is especially illuminating for its suggestions of how powerfully the United States exerted itself to influence the scarcely merited kindnesses the UN has rendered Chile and Guatemala.

Chile was the first member-state—if hardly the most eligible—to be subjected to the scrutinies of the UN Human Rights Commission; and, from 1974 until 1984, the state of things there was annually found deplorable. In due course, the Chileans refused further traffic with any UN Special Rapporteur. In 1984 Chile unexpectedly informed the UN Secretariat that it was now disposed to cooperate with a Latin American rapporteur.

As a consequence of behind-the-scenes efforts by the Reagan Administration,” the three Watch committees say, Fernando Volio, former foreign minister of Costa Rica, was appointed to the job. Volio is a respected political scientist whose support of our Central American policies is generally heartier than the average for his neighborhood. As his work is summarized by the Watch committees, he managed to get through a fifty-six-page report without mentioning either Chile’s secret police (the CNI), which his predecessors had cited for no end of excesses, or the Vicarite of Solidarity, the Catholic human rights agency that has done most to compute the CNI’s body counts. But then Volio avoided the bishops as carefully as he did less venerable opponents of the present condition of affairs.

This want of active curiosity may explain why four-fifths of Volio’s report is taken up by …

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