A little over a year after joining the still-flawed United Nations Human Rights Council, the Obama administration is making an impact, pushing through resolutions on freedom of assembly and the creation of a global survey on discrimination against women in national laws and practices. It has also given unqualified public support in recent weeks to the UN refugee agency as it strengthens protections for asylum seekers who face persecution because of gender identity.
The president himself spent nearly three days at the UN in September, participating in not only the formal opening of the diplomatic year but also a summit on development goals and a high-level meeting on the future of Sudan, where his appearance brought added attention.
It would be too bad if this turns out to be too little too late. If the Democrats lose control of Congress next month, a new round of ill-informed isolationism (or is it provincialism?) could soon threaten. Progressive internationalists in Europe, Canada and numerous other places remember well the destructive go-it-alone policies of the Bush years, when the United States rejected and tried to undermine the new International Criminal Court, dismissed the urgency of dealing with climate change, opted out of the Human Rights Council and sided with the Vatican and Muslim nations on gender issues at the UN, where homophobia still lingers.
During those years, antichoice members of Congress forced a ban on American contributions to the UN Population Fund, based on maliciously untrue accusations that the organization was involved in abortions in China. And then there was the abstinence-only crusade and a virtual war on condoms, to the distress of UN agencies and private aid organizations working in the poorest countries where women and girls were most at risk of unwanted pregnancies and disease.
There is little room now for discussion of America’s place in the world during a political season dominated by threats to undo the social and environmental policies of Obama, imperfect though they may be. Absurd candidates, party infighting and sweeping generalizations from the right about American patriotism or the racially charged question of the president’s nationality dominate. A foreigner might well be horrified by the spectacle of how voters in what is still the world’s most influential (like it or not) country choose a legislature.
Against that background, steps by the Obama administration are especially welcome at the UN and in other international organizations. Washington is taking an active part (short of full membership) in the International Criminal Court. It has promoted a greater role for the Group of 20 nations to move away from the dominance of the G8. Most recently it has been increasingly engaged in the work of the Human Rights Council, which it joined in 2009.
After the current session of the council ended in Geneva at the beginning of this month, seven human rights groups wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to commend the administration for the role it played. “You have shown that progress can be made in the Council when the United States begins to invest resources in multilateral diplomacy and to build broad, cross-regional coalitions,” the letter said.
There are still concerns about the fixation with Israel, with most condemnatory resolutions aimed at that government, in part because the Organization of the Islamic Conference, backed by some non-Muslim developing nations, commands a significant number of votes in the forty-seven-member council. Yet there are signs that the block may be weakening.