A pair of imminent decisions by the Obama administration will reveal how committed it is to engaging the world on universal human rights issues, and whether it is willing to stand up to special interests and a predictable conservative outcry in Washington. On the issue of human rights, bipartisanship will be even harder to achieve than on a domestic economic rescue package.
First and most important in the long term is whether Obama will reverse the Bush administration's boycott of the United Nations Human Rights Council, created in 2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. Elections for the forty-seven-nation council take place in May, and other candidates are already in the field campaigning for three-year terms.
More immediately, the administration will have to decide whether to attend a controversial meeting in Geneva April 20-24 to review the results of a conference on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Canada and Israel have already announced they will not go to Geneva; several European nations are apparently wavering, while looking for a lead from Washington.
At the State Department, the message is that both decisions are "under review."
As candidates in the presidential primaries, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton would be drawn into a pledge to join the Human Rights Council, merely saying it had some problems and needed to be studied, leaving no doubt that there were doubts. One of the sticking points seems to be the council's "universal periodic review," which subjects every UN member to an accounting every four years. Exposing the United States to any outside examination has always been a red flag, not only to the right wing, though the outcry will be loudest from that quarter. The United States is due for its first review in 2010--whether or not it is a council member.
Now, as president and secretary of state, Obama and Clinton will have to jump in boldly if the United States is to play any part in bringing balance and breadth to human rights discussions and decisions within the UN system. The large majority of developing nations are steadily advancing their own agendas and definitions of rights, and these are often at odds with the understanding on which most politically developed industrial nations--not all of them Western by any means--operate. Obama has the world's attention, and in the council it can be put to good use.
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What went wrong in Durban in 2001 (and has been echoed more recently in debates within the Human Rights Council) was the resurgence of one-sided anti-Israeli attacks in the framing of issues and writing of documents. It does not help that chair of the preparations for the Geneva review conference is a Libyan, although a wide range of nations are assisting him. Israel will not welcome American participation in Geneva and pro-Israeli individuals and groups are campaigning actively for a boycott.
In December, Rupert Colville, spokesman for the high commissioner for human rights, acknowledged the problem at Durban that ultimately caused then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to walk out, as did Israel, even though the worst of the rhetoric came from a parallel nongovernmental forum, not from the conference itself, as its final document shows.
"The 2001 World Conference was indeed marred by the grotesque behavior of some anti-Israel NGOs at the parallel NGO forum," Colville said in a statement after Israel announced it would not attend at all this time. "Their inexcusable anti-Semitic actions, coupled with some difficult debates at the state level, have unfortunately cast the entire 2001 Conference and next year's review in a negative light that is, by and large, unmerited."
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay--a South African who suffered through and fought apartheid--is urging all nations to come to Geneva, where there will not be an NGO forum this time. She points out repeatedly that the Durban conference, while tainted by the Israeli controversy, adopted a clear declaration that "the Holocaust must never be forgotten."
Looking ahead, she says that there are urgent new issues to be discussed, including discriminatory treatment of migrants in many places, as well as rising religious intolerance and other issues.
"We owe a frank debate and concrete action to the victims of discrimination, intolerance and racism," she wrote in a recent opinion article in the Guardian. "What message does a state boycott send to those who are suffering from racism? What message does it send to those who perpetuate racism? This struggle concerns all of us in our increasingly multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies."