After months of tension and uncertainty, hope seems to be returning to the geopolitical front. Furiously. Witness the overtures between Pakistan and India, Libya and Great Britain, Syria and Israel, North Korea and the US, Iran and the West-all significant and all in the past few weeks. Some credit the powerful tide of Iraq, while others, the massaging strokes of diplomacy. Whatever the case, the results are encouraging: leaders are starting to choose statesmanship over brinksmanship. And though the days of Best Western in Pyongyang remain far off, meaningful dialogue between these and other traditional adversaries is not. Indeed, as Tom Friedman of the NY Times observed, historic times are upon us.
That said, cheering should wait.
According to Freedom House, an independent think-tank monitoring human rights in the world, Iran and Pakistan-two of our newfound interlocutors-have obscene records of abuse. Only Libya, Syria and North Korea fare worse. Though tempting to imagine otherwise, there is no sign that their softening foreign policies will mean anything for their domestic ones. On the contrary; ever-fearful of a weakened image, these Machiavellians will likely take extra care to ensure that their regimes are not challenged.
Just this week, after bowing to demands for weapons inspections and restrictions, Iran’s religious elite banned nearly all reformist candidates from upcoming elections. This, after crushing student-led protests under the boot of the military last summer. Meanwhile, Libya, despite its mea culpa on exporting terrorism around the globe, continues to terrorize its own citizens with arbitrary arrests, torture and executions. And North Korea, with over half its population suffering from malnutrition, is busy stuffing its military and greasing potential allies.
If the international community contents itself with this outer-inner divide-where good-will flows out, but never in-its political gains will be painfully ephemeral. In the long-run, securing treaties and trade with rogue leaders can do little to quell the anger and pain of homegrown oppression.
This is precisely why the UN’s position is so unique and its potential, so great. Individual countries can, and indeed, are forcing inter-state change, but only the UN has the credibility and wherewithal to deliver on an intra-state level. This is of course a longer and less glorious road, but still one worth traveling.
The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), convening from January 12-30 in Geneva, is one important step. While none of the nine countries up for review are party to the above developments, and though the topic is children and not censorship or torture, the meeting is nonetheless relevant. With the CRC, the UN is essentially entering sacred space-the home-and announcing inspections.
By backing up these inspections with serious discussions and real consequences, the UN can put all countries on notice: your curtains will stay open and our house-cleanings will continue-regardless of high-profile gestures and alliances.
Until then, hope will remain only that and cheering, on hold.