Growing up in Richmond, B.C., I, like more than a few Canadian children, dreamed of becoming secretary-general of the United Nations. The ideal of engaged global citizenship enraptured me, a political refugee from Idi Amin's Uganda.
The storied service of secretaries-general from faraway lands - Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, U Thant of Burma - shaped my belief that, whatever our origins, the UN is a crucible of common decency. I even remember telling high-school pals that my future career must involve human-rights activism. Without quite knowing what that meant, I knew the source of my inspiration.
So I have to thank the UN for making me such an enthusiast of human dignity that I can no longer defend much of its work. This week's drama was only the latest self-imposed lashing of its integrity.
Iran's government, among the world's most hostile to women, almost made it onto the executive board of UN Women - a new, extra-powerful agency mandated to advance women's equality. The nomination would have allowed Iran to slip into its seat without the glare of an election.
On Tuesday, that plan blew up. As news leaked that Iran might help call the shots at UN Women, and as human-rights groups began crying foul, polite diplomats got twitchy. East Timor jumped into the race. Dedicated arm-twisting by the United States, Canada, Australia and European countries paid off. On Wednesday, Iran lost the showdown.
But has human dignity emerged victorious? Saudi Arabia, at least as much an abuser of women as Iran, automatically bagged its position on UN Women's board by being a donor. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudis essentially "bought" their seat. Now their representative can fly home and tell Saudi women's rights advocates about the kingdom's heightened legitimacy. Yep, that'll give everyone confidence that the stonings and floggings are coming to an end.
Having human-rights violators at the table might change them faster than isolation will. But experience suggests they're actually egged on.
In June of 2009, David Littman of the Association for World Education went before the UN Human Rights Council. He proposed that the Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar University, the Harvard of Sunni Islam, issue a fatwa against the stoning of women to death. Whereupon the Egyptian representative interjected, "I will not see Islam crucified on this council!" Crucified? By resorting to an Islamic solution?
This story illustrates deeper corruption among power players at the UN. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is a union of 57 Muslim-majority countries. For several years, it has pushed through a resolution called "Combatting Defamation of Religions." Armed with its logic and emotion, the UN Human Rights Council censors interventions not only about stoning but also about girls as young as 9 being married off.
Never mind that the crimes themselves defame Allah by cloaking man-made culture as divine edict. Never mind that this inhumane power play is being humoured by, of all things, a human-rights council. Never mind that its Godforsaken game offends plenty of Muslims who won't have our say in the culturally circumspect corridors of the UN.
In its defence, the OIC objects that "new trends" are "threatening the multicultural fabric of many of our societies." Trends, for example, plotted by Danish cartoon editors. But "new" trends don't explain why Pakistan presented the first anti-defamation measure to the UN in 1999 - long before the 2006 Prophet Mohammed cartoon fiasco, or 9/11, or George W. Bush.
As of Wednesday, Pakistan also sits on the executive board of UN Women.
For all the hypocrisy, absurdity and indignity, I refuse to become cynical. Michelle Bachelet, the no-nonsense former president of Chile, heads UN Women. That's one reason for hope. I trust she'll be an ally to Human Rights Watch, which vows to crank up the heat on Saudi Arabia as it takes its place under the feminist sun.
It's even possible that this week's shenanigans have awakened sedate diplomats. Next week, the UN General Assembly will vote on Iran's human-rights record. Lobbying has intensified because of the showdown at UN Women - for better or for worse.
I still love what the UN stands for. But none of us should abide what it's fallen for.