The U.N. Secretariat has poured noticeable energy into expressions of outrage over allegations that there was something rotten with its Oil-for-Food relief program in Iraq. But amid the 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.
The demonstration had nothing to do with Iraq or Oil-for-Food. It involved 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."
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.
As one humanitarian aid worker, Tim Peters, testified to Congress, "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 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. 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.
[The author, Ms. Rosett, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears in The Wall Street Journal]