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 “the Rapporteur’s contacts with the Chilean government.” He did not entirely acquit; still he did not remotely convict, which is the highest compliment General Pinochet could hope to hear spoken in the name of the civilized portion of mankind. As the Watch groups put it:

The report’s treatment of egregious human rights violations in Chile is at best superficial. Such issues as the state of siege (in force from November 1984 to mid-June 1985), the systematic practice of torture, pending cases of disappearances, the practices of political murder, internal banishment, and arbitrary detention, receive little serious examination.

Guatemala has a civilian government of promise as yet unproved; but throughout most of the Reagan administration, general followed general to the saddle and the State Department spoke highly of each until he was unhorsed, at which point an American official spokesman would swear that the human rights problem had been at last solved with the preceding monster’s removal.

Any UN Human Rights Commission attention to Guatemala was, not unnaturally, a trial to our serenity. In March 1982, a Special Rapporteur was decreed; the first appointee was rejected by the Guatemalan government, which then, not we may suppose without the inspiration and assistance of its great patron, wangled the designation Viscount Colville, a British Conservative at liberty.

Colville toured the Guatemalan countryside with a government military escort. He seems to have been untroubled by any notion of such company’s inhibitions on the testimonial process and has emerged for three years with findings so sunny that the State Department delights to quote his views of human rights conditions in Guatemala and overlook those of its Council of Bishops. Colville, the Watch groups tell us, was

asked “to assess in particular allegations of politically motivated killings, disappearances, acts of torture, extrajudicial executions and confinement in clandestine prisons.” In his 1985 report, however, Colville asserted that the issue of disappearances fell under the purview of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Having thus re-defined his task, Lord Colville eliminated from his mandate one of the major aspects of human rights abuse in Guatemala. The problem of disappearances has been an ongoing tragedy there for the past 20 years. Of some 90,000 disappearances reported throughout Latin America, an estimated 35,000 occurred in Guatemala where the practice originated in 1966. Colville did not decline to consider disappearances in 1983 and 1984. But, in 1985, [he] unilaterally altered the mandate given him by the resolution of the UN Human Rights Commission.

There is no reason to be surprised at how graceful the UN can often be in obeying our desires. The Secretariat has lived in New York long enough by now to learn the necessities of soothing the sensibilities of the landlord.


Copyright © 1986 Newsday Inc.

This Issue

February 13, 1986