May 11, 2004 | Opinion Journal

Another U.N. Scandal – At Turtle Bay, North Korean Dissidents Find Only Indifference

The U.N. Secretariat has been pouring noticeable energy lately into expressions of outrage over allegations that there was something rotten with its Oil-for-Food relief program in Iraq. In politics that is no doubt to be expected; it is probably too much to wish that the U.N. would simply seize the opportunity of this multibillion-dollar scandal to shed its entrenched habits of privilege and secrecy, and restructure itself as the model of decency it was meant to be. But amid the current fracas over Oil-for-Food, there are other points to be made, and one of them has to do with a very small demonstration held in front of the U.N. late last month.

The demonstration had nothing to do with Iraq or Oil-for-Food. It involved some three dozen protesters who were asking the U.N. to honor its commitment to help refugees from North Korea. They held posters showing photos of starving children in North Korea, and pictures of tyrant Kim Jong Il alongside slogans such as, “Stop subsidizing this regime.” One man wore a sandwich board with big lettering that said: “China! Comply With the U.N. Resolution for North Korean Refugees”–a demand that Bejing honor its obligations as a signatory to the U.N.'s Convention on Refugees, instead of sending asylum-seekers back to what can often be hideous punishment or death in North Korea.

They were protesting the most horrific surviving totalitarian regime on the planet. They were making entirely reasonable demands. They knew what they were talking about. Among their number were several defectors from North Korea, who had come to New York after testifying before Congress about horrible abuses of human rights in North Korea, alleging biological and chemical weapons experiments on prisoners in the slave-labor camps of Kim's regime. One of these defectors, Dong Chul Choi, who escaped along with his mother in the mid-1990s and has since become one of an incredibly small handful to receive asylum in the U.S., was wielding a megaphone, calling in both English and Korean a few words that deserve to echo around the world:
“Free North Korea.”

There were perhaps half a dozen spectators. Apart from that, what registered in the surroundings on that lovely spring day was complete indifference.

Tulips bloomed in a nearby flower bed. Traffic went by on First Avenue.

Across the street, the long row of flags fluttered in front of the U.N. From within the landmark headquarters, as far as I could see, no one emerged to take a look.

One might argue, of course, that the U.N. office of the High Commissioner for Refugees is not in New York, but in Geneva, so that's where folks worried about refugee rights should go. One might also argue that the U.N., as currently configured, places the highest premium on deference to sovereign states, regardless of what abominations a prevailing regime might commit within its own borders–so Kim's regime must have its seat within the fancy building, while those who would like to end his regime must wait on the sidewalk outside. One might further add that a much larger group of demonstrators for freedom for North Koreans, and rights for North Korean refugees, had already had their say in Washington, at a series of events organized by activist Suzanne Scholte's Defense Forum Foundation, in which the testimony to Congress served as the centerpiece.

And the politics are, of course, complex. China, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, and a member of the governing body of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, opposes any move to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have risked their lives to flee North Korea. As one humanitarian aid worker, Tim Peters, testified to Congress last month, “China continues to flout international law and world opinion by continuing to imprison the selfless and sacrificial souls who reach out with a helping hand to the vulnerable North Koreans who wander, vulnerable, in China.” Mr.Peters went on to list five of these private aid workers now in Chinese prisons.

The points have been duly made. The procedures relating to such matters as North Korean refugee rights may not have been complied with, but they have at least been noted on paper. The U.N. can point to the resolution in which its own Human Rights Commission in Geneva actually worked around to condemning Pyongyang, for the second year running (after a decade in which state-inflicted famine in North Korea has killed an estimated two million or so). Surely such measures are enough? Why should anyone at the U.N.'s New York offices bother about this small group of demonstrators, however enormous their concerns? They have no official voice, no serious lobbying presence, nothing in fact that seems to carry true weight within the mighty debates of the U.N.

And maybe that's where the Oil-for-Food scandal comes into it. In watching the strenuous efforts at the U.N. to protect above all the U.N.'s own reputation; in seeing the circling of wagons, and appearances on television; in observing the efforts to ensure that none of the contractors involved in the Oil-for-Food saga speak a word out of school or spill a secret that might endanger the U.N.'s reputation–I have to wish that anything close to this kind of energy were going into support for that small band of protesters with their huge message: “Free North Korea.”

The litmus test of the U.N.'s worth and integrity should not be how well it manages to protect its own image, regardless of the deeds within, or how well it navigates the nuances of the ruthless and repressive politics still practiced by dozens of its 191 member states. Kofi Annan was at pains in his recent “Meet the Press” interview to stress that he sees the U.N. as a “unique organization,” one “that can bring the whole world together.” To bring the whole world together, given how the world really works, requires in too many cases the sacrifice of precisely the integrity, freedom and decency that the U.N. was meant to serve.

In dealing with the current Oil-for-Food scandal, the best defense for the U.N., and particularly for Mr. Annan's Secretariat, would be to stop circling the wagons and fretting about image, and instead to seize the opportunity to reform its cloistered ways, and get with the program of a democratizing world–with all the transparency and accountability and genuine respect for the principles of liberty that this entails. The U.N.was put there to listen to people like those demonstrators who last month stood unheeded on the sidewalk, not to broadcast to the world a long series of messages about its own precious image and importance.

Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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