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.
Faiza Mohamed of Equality Now, a New York–based organization with global reach, described in an e-mail after the recent council session that in the debate over the creation of a study group to catalogue discriminatory laws against women, which a group of OIC nations sought to derail or weaken, a number of African nations that are OIC members broke ranks and worked with Mexico and Colombia to build a consensus that had wide support.
“The co-sponsors [of the resolution] mostly led by the US, Norway, Australia and others stood their ground,” Mohamed said. Despite a last-minute Saudi attempt to weaken that global consensus by allowing governments to interpret their laws as they wished, she added, “All along the OIC could see that they didn’t have the votes. Thanks to the Africans.”
The United States was also a principal sponsor of a successful resolution establishing a monitoring system on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and pushed hard for continued council reporting on Sudan and Somalia.
Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and a signer of the letter to Clinton, said that the US presence in the council has helped force open debate and negotiation with nations of the global South, preventing the easy passage of unbalanced and politically motivated resolutions. The council was formed in 2006, replacing the Human Right Commission; the US did not stand for election to it until mid-2009.
“The years that the US wasn’t there, the Europeans didn’t really know what to do,” Gaer said. “The ‘bad guys’ led by Cuba, Egypt and Pakistan, were able to advance more of their poison pill initiatives. The return of the US has helped. The US has taken leadership, the US has knowledge, the US has ideas, and that stimulates things.”
Gaer added, however, that the United States had lost its diplomatic networks on international human rights during the Bush years and has still to recover them. It took the Obama administration a long time to put a human rights team in place in Geneva.
The US ambassador to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, was not confirmed until March of this year. Donahoe is an affiliated scholar at the Center for international Security and Cooperation at Stanford University who holds degrees in both law and theology, but who is a relative newcomer to the arcane and at times bizarre world of UN bodies such as the Human Rights Council. Her support team is described as staffed largely by neophytes.
There is still work to do if the United States is intent on putting the council on the road to credibility, able to withstand any future assault from the parochial American right, which objected most recently to Washington’s report to the council on American human rights practices, a requirement for all UN member nations. The US report will be in the council’s agenda in November.
The letter to Clinton from human rights organizations – Amnesty International, the Bahai International Community, Freedom House, Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and the Jacob Blaustein Institute – acknowledges that “very serious obstacles” still face the council, but asks the US to stay on course. The letter urges “a stronger engagement with the United Nations’ primary human rights body and a greater concentration of skilled and knowledgeable personnel on these issues here and in UN forums.”