Almost three-forths of the 32 U.N. member governments charged with trying to improve human rights conditions in the world are themselves accused of violating the rights of their citizens.
This political irony is a key obstacle standing in the way of the Carter administration's attempt to internationalize its activist human rights policy through the U.N.'s Human Rights Commission.
At the five-week session that ended last month, the majority's reluctance to press such countries as Uganda and the Soviet Union to observe the principles of the U.N. Charter and its 19 human rights convenants frustrated the Carter administration's initial efforts to translate its own priorities into global action.
The commission, however, is hamstrung by a maze of Catch-22 procedures that allow nations to avoid the embarassment of voting openly against actions supporting human rights.
The most potent weapon at the United Nations' disposal is, in theory, the process of confidential hearings on evidence of gross and continuing violations of individual rights. Only through this process can a U.N. study or investigation be launched without permission of the country involved.
But this is also the Geneva-based comission's most glaring weakness. The confidentiality of the process protects the worst violators from the public spotlight. So far, political agreement to proceed from the closed hearings into public investigation has been lacking. In recent years the increasingly influential Third World countries in the U.N. have used the rights instruments more to promote political causes and the right of economic development rather than the freedom of the individual.
Another catch is that a lengthy screening process delays evidence, which is then subject to challenge on the ground that it is outdated. For the first time this year, however, charges against the five countries being examined (Uganda, Bolivai, Equatorial Guinea, Malawi, and South Korea) were held over until next year, rather than being dismissed.
"This leaves the pressure on the governments involved - they know they are on trial," said a diplomat in Geneva.
Ironically, Uganda is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, along with such other accused violators as the Soviet Union, Cuba, Yugoslavia and Uruguay.
In recent years the influential bloc of Third World countries in the U.N. have used the rights instruments more to promote political causes and sactify the right of economic development rather than the freedom of the individual.
Some experts believe that the commission's resolutions could pose a threat to human rights. "In the hands of a totalitarian regime," says B'nai B'rith human rights expert William Korey, "these provisions become a device for whitewashing repressive policies."
For example, article 12 of the covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which come into force last fall when the 35th nation - Czechoslovakia - ratified it, enabled governments to restrict emigration for reasons of "national security" and "public order."
Despite the shortcomings, Korey defends the U.N. rights provisions as essential because it is "the wellspring of resistance to oppression."
The U.N. debate and documents provide a justification for the actions of Soviet dissenters of example.
This was the argument that President Carter made in his U.N. speech when he said that "no member of the U.N. can claim that mistreatment of its citizens is solely its own business."
Americans and other Western officials say that strengthening of the rights commission is both necessary and possible.
Carter proposed three specific actions:
That the commission meet more often than once a year;
That the U.N. Human Rights Division and the commission that oversees it be returned to the spotlight of New York from the limbo of Geneva where it moved in 1973.
The appointment of an independent U.N. high commissioner for human rights who should speak out against violations.
There was polite applause for the Carter proposals. In private, many U.N. diplomats voiced uncertainty about just how seriously the United States intends to press for human rights in its unilateral relations and its U.N. policy.
Carter's proposals must be approved by the General Assembly where a majority opposes any autonomous U.N. human-rights body and seeks to avoid publicity or rights violations.
The U.N. Human Rights Division moves to Geneva after Congress refused to appropriate funds to help finance office space in New York. The move was also political in part, with the U.S. bowing to Soviet and Arab pressures.
American diplomats and representatives of nongovernmental organizations such as International Commission of Jurists, which provides most of the documentation to the commission about rights violations, belive that there are other and less dramatic ways to make the U.N. rights mechanism more effective.
One is the upcoming appointment of an activist as director of the division - Theo van Boven, a Dutch diplomat, who has shown savvy and firmness in steering solutions on Chile and on torture through U.N. bodies in recent years.
The effectiveness of U.S. representation on the commission, has also improved, according to non-American participants in the recent Geneva session.
Allard Lowenstein, a last-minute Carter appointee who went to Geneva with little preparation, "did very well, showed sensitivity, and tried to win friends," said Niail MacDermott, the head of the jurists group.
Lowenstein and other Americans said the recent commission session was relatively successful in improving procedure and broadening debate, if not in generation action.
"We also broke out of the 'iron triangle' - the tendency of the commission to concentrate on Israel. South Africa and Chile," a U.S. official said, of effective U.N. action on behalf of human rights in recent years. The commission established an investigatory body three sessions ago to look into Chilean violations.