U.N. Democracies Must Act Together, Says U.S. Official

By David McKeeby
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Working together, the world’s democracies can help the United Nations to live up to its full potential, says a top State Department official.

“The U.S. believes that stronger coordination among democratic countries that share similar values and institutions will help to strengthen the U.N.’s work in promoting democracy and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Mark Lagon, deputy assistant secretary for international organization affairs, said September 25 in remarks at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Although some might see the U.N. General Assembly as more democratic than the smaller Security Council, Lagon argued, the assembly’s broader membership should not be mistaken for a democratic ideal since many of its nondemocratic members work directly against the global body’s ideals of promoting peace, preserving freedom, protecting human rights and building prosperity for all.  (See related article.)

All too often, Lagon said, “Grandstanding dictatorships block the U.N.’s universal and elective bodies from forming consensus to stem bloodshed and censure repression.”

The world’s democracies, the deputy assistant secretary said, must work against these states to “have the U.N. achieve the vision its founders anticipated – to advance peace, economic development, and human rights.”  (See related article.)


The challenges facing the new U.N. Human Rights Council, Lagon said, illustrate the need for democracies to act together. 

The council was created this year to replace the Commission on Human Rights, which was widely criticized for its failure to confront abuses – in no small part due to the machinations of nondemocratic states that were among its members and sometimes under sanctions themselves for human rights violations, as its critics pointed out.  (See related article.)

As diplomats met in New York to create the council, the United States proposed what it felt were two essential requirements: that prospective members be approved by two-thirds of the U.N. membership present and voting, and that prospective members should not be under Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.

Despite U.S. efforts to ensure that the new council would be “populated by firefighters, not arsonists,” Lagon said, neither proposal was approved, prompting the United States ultimately to vote against the council. 

“The Secretary-General had set the goal of creating a body definitively better than the commission,” Lagon said, but “in the end, a historic opportunity was squandered, with the acquiescence of some of those who were willing to settle for ‘good enough.’”  (See related article.)

Even though it does not participate in the council, the United States remains a “highly active nonmember,” Lagon said, and is encouraging its democratic allies on the council to continue drawing attention to the world’s worst human rights crises.


The United Nations should help nations seeking to improve human rights and foster freedom, but when regimes commit atrocities against their citizens, Lagon said, the international community must also be prepared to take action. 

The United Nations has enshrined this concept in the Right to Protect, which was adopted at the 60th Anniversary World Summit.  It is one of several creditable steps undertaken by Secretary-General Annan to move away from the body’s historic reluctance to promote democracy, a key enabler of peace and prosperity, Lagon said.

Among other successes, Lagon cited the United Nations’ efforts to:

• Monitor democratic elections and provide training and support for poll workers in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and Burundi;

• Establish the U.N. Democracy Fund, proposed by President Bush in 2004, which provided $35 million donated by more than 100 countries toward projects designed to strengthen democratic institutions and governance in new or consolidating democracies;

• Advance democracy through UNESCO’s efforts to help remove hate from textbooks and promote a free press;

• Help states to confront and address corruption through the U.N. Development Program; and

• Aid post-conflict societies through both peacekeeping missions and continuing engagement in rebuilding and stabilization.


These and other efforts show that the United Nations has taken significant steps toward promoting democracy, Lagon said, but they can continue only if democracies can keep the momentum going by showing the political will to turn their ideals into action.

To this end, the United States has encouraged the development of a Democracy Caucus within the United Nations.  Its membership, drawn from the 120 nations that in Warsaw, Poland in 2000 founded the Community of Democracies, convened its first caucus meeting September 20 at the U.N. General Assembly.  

Like other informal groupings within the world body, the caucus serves as a forum for like-minded nations to forge common positions on democracy-related U.N. activities.  Lagon added that the caucus complements the United Nations traditional regional voting bloc system by bringing together nations from within and across regions to exchange ideas on ways to help promote democracy.

“The Democracy Caucus has potential because nations with rule of law at home have a special capacity and responsibility to promote meaningful international law and a world order serving human dignity,” Lagon said.

A transcript of Lagon’s remarks is available on the State Department Web site.

For more information, see The United States and the United Nations.