IN THEIR zeal to prevent the United States from eliminating one of the world's most brutal and dangerous despots, France and Germany lately have begun insisting that the United Nations must be the ultimate authority in international affairs. French President Jacques Chirac recently declared that a "collective" response to Iraq's refusal to disarm, through the Security Council, "is the only legitimate one." Never mind that Mr. Chirac has rarely sought U.N. approval for French military interventions, most recently in Ivory Coast. The broader principle is one many Americans would like to embrace: that the United Nations be a universally accepted source of law and sanction. As much as any nation, the United States has worked to elevate the world body to such a position over the past 50 years. Yet by some measures, success remains a long way off. Amid the din of the Iraq debate Monday at the Security Council, a vivid demonstration of that imperfect reality was underway in Geneva, where the U.N. Commission on Human Rights elected its new chairman: Libya.

Just as the Security Council is meant to bestow approval or censure on acts of war, the Commission on Human Rights is supposed to judge whether nations around the world are observing the United Nations' own human rights declaration, and to formally condemn those who do not. Yet now, grotesquely, its leader will be one of the charter's worst violators, a dictatorship with a long record of support for international terrorism whose treatment of its own people was recently summed up by Human Rights Watch with a single word: "appalling." According to the private watchdog group, "Libya's human rights record . . . has included the abduction, forced disappearance, or assassination of political opponents; torture and mistreatment of detainees; and long-term detention without charge or trial or after grossly unfair trials. Today hundreds of people remain arbitrarily detained, some for over a decade." Moreover, Libya has itself refused to admit U.N. human rights investigators. Yet the regime of Moammar Gaddafi will now chair discussions of alleged abuses by Israel in the occupied territories, Russia in Chechnya . . . perhaps even the United States in Afghanistan.

How did this happen? Sadly, Libya's elevation is not an aberration but a typical product of the United Nations' political procedure and culture. As in other U.N. bodies, regions of the world take turns nominating members and the chairman of the 53-member commission; this year was Africa's turn, and Libya won its colleagues' support through generous financial support for the new African Union. A solid majority of the commission's members are democracies, but only three voted against Libya. All seven members of the European Union abstained, even as their ambassadors in New York were insisting that only the United Nations has the moral authority to authorize the deposing of a dictator guilty of some of the most terrible crimes since World War II. It would be nice if the United Nations really had earned that kind of authority; sadly, it has not.