U.N. preaching to Rome

Originally at: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303650204579372622361332560

by CLAUDIA ROSETT

In the name of protecting children,the United Nations is now preaching to the Vatican. A report on the Holy See—released by a U.N. committee last week to much media fanfare—alleged that tens of thousands of children have been abused by Catholic clerics, and that the Vatican has helped cover it up.

The committee strongly urged the Vatican: “Ensure a transparent sharing of all archives which can be used to hold the abusers accountable as well as those who concealed their crimes and knowingly placed offenders in contact with children.”

That’s rich coming from the U.N., which has still not solved its own festering problems of peacekeeper sex abuse, including the rape of minors. Exposing abusers and holding them to account is a great idea. The Vatican has spent years addressing the scandal of its own past handling of such cases. But the U.N. hardly engages in the transparency it is now promoting.

The U.N. releases only generic statistics on violations committed by personnel working under its flag. The U.N. doesn’t share with the public such basic information as the names of the accused or the details of what they did to people the U.N. dispatched them to protect. Blue berets accused of sex crimes are simply sent back to their home countries, where in the majority of cases they drop off the radar.

United Nations (UN) peacekeepers Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Though the U.N. has been recording a drop in sex-abuse cases since it began releasing numbers in 2007, the number of alleged instances of rape and exploitation each year still runs into the dozens. (This may understate the realities, given the hurdles to victims coming forward, often in societies in tumult or at war.) From 2007-13, the U.N. reported more than 600 allegations of rape or sexual exploitation, with 354 substantiated—many of them involving minors. The numbers do not convey how ugly some of these cases get. Details can occasionally be gleaned when an incident seeps past the U.N. wall of omerta and makes it into the news, as with the peacekeeper gang rape in 2011 of a Haitian teenager, whose agony was caught on video.

In such matters as sex abuse, it is reasonable to hold the Vatican, or any other organization, to standards higher than the low bar the U.N. sets for itself. But hypocrisy is just one of the problems with this 16-page report on the Holy See, which further assails the Vatican for not subordinating itself wholesale to a much broader U.N. agenda. For example, the report calls for the Vatican to drop its opposition to adolescent abortion and contraception, condone underage homosexuality, and use its “authority” and “influence” to disseminate world-wide a roster of U.N. views and policies that run counter to those of the Catholic Church.

The real issue here is that whatever changes the Vatican and the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics might consider, the U.N. is supremely ill-qualified to serve as a guide. The body that produced this report is the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. Its job is to monitor compliance with the U.N.-engendered Convention on the Rights of the Child, a lengthy and intrusive treaty that went into effect in 1990.

When the Holy See became one of the early parties to this treaty, it did so with explicit reservations meant to safeguard its own authority and religious character. Now the committee, in its report on Wednesday, is pressing the Vatican to “withdraw all its reservations and to ensure the Convention’s precedence over internal laws and regulations.” The committee’s recommendations are nonbinding but can influence public opinion. In this report the Vatican is publicly shamed—and then urged to redeem itself by bowing before the altar of the U.N.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child consists of 18 panelists advertised as “independent experts,” serviced by a secretariat housed in Geneva under the umbrella of the U.N.’s dubiously named Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The committee members are nominated for their posts by the governments of their home countries and elected by an assembly of treaty members that reflects the despot-heavy tilt of the U.N.

From 2009-13 the committee included a member put forward by the government of Syria, where in 2011 the Assad regime began making world headlines for torturing and murdering children. Currently, the committee includes members from such human-rights-challenged countries as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt. This panel issues reports via a process that in practice entails neither uniform standards of judgment nor urgent attention to some of the world’s most horrifying abuses of children.

Officially, all parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child are supposed to self-report every five years. The U.N. committee then responds with its own volume of “concluding observations”—which is what just hit the Vatican. In practice, however, some treaty members miss their deadlines by years, and when they do clock in, the committee is chronically slow to respond. Iran has for years led the world in juvenile executions, yet the committee last reported on Iran in 2005. Its next report on Iran is not due until 2016.

A stark example of selective reporting can be found in the committee’s most recent observations on Saudi Arabia—issued eight years ago. That report mentioned the case of a 2002 fire at a girls school in Mecca, a disaster in which 15 girls died and dozens more were injured. Expressing “grave concern” that “the school building did not meet adequate safety standards for children,” the committee recommended that school buildings be made safer and that staff be trained for such emergencies.

What the committee did not mention was that when the schoolgirls tried to escape the fire, Saudi Islamic-morality police drove the students back into the burning building because they were not covered head-to-toe in the scarves and abayas required in public. Saudi journalists had the courage to report on this monstrous element of the tragedy. The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child left it out.

Or take North Korea, where state policy has led to famines that resulted in the stunting and mass starvation of children, and where disloyalty to the supreme leader can be punished by sending three generations of a family, including children, to prison-labor camps. In assessing North Korea, the U.N. committee in its most recent report released in 2009 expressed concern about”severe ill-treatment” of children and noted with “deep concern” that “the overall standard of living of children remains very low.” But there was none of the fervor with which the committee has denounced the Vatican for failing to explicitly forbid corporal punishment. On that the committee was more than merely concerned, scolding the Holy See to ensure that “all forms of violence against children, however light, are unacceptable.”

The Vatican has responded to this U.N. satrapy with a statement that its headline-grabbing report was “unjustly harmful” and went beyond the committee’s competencies “to interfere in the very doctrinal and moral positions of the Catholic Church.” Pope Francis might want to consider that it is precisely to avoid gross intrusion by unaccountable U.N. “experts” that the United States has signed but never ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty has less to do with children than with political power plays, and a fitting reform at the Vatican would be to walk away from it.

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

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