Member States Reach Agreement on Anti-Racism Document

22 04 2009

The anti-racism Durban Review Conference on 21 April adopted its final outcome document. It has its flaws particularly some questionable free speech paragraphs and its vulnerable to the charge that it did not need to include language regarding foreign occupation, though there is no mention of Israel by name. There are also a lot of NGO groups that are understandably frustrated at how language about the transatlantic slave trade was watered down in the final out come document.

But considering what the previous drafts looked like this final outcome document is a dramatic improvement. What’s more, the NYT has correctly framed this as a victory for the UN process and a loss for Ahmedinejad and those who wanted to use the Israeli-Palestinian question to either overshadow all other global racial discrimination issues or not participate in the conference at all.

The adoption of the resolution by the committee that coordinates the conference ended months of negotiation that removed contentious clauses referring to Israel and Palestine and trying to make defamation of religion an offense against human rights.

The conference will formally adopt the document here on Friday, but it is no longer open to debate or amendment, diplomats said.

Announcing the adoption of the resolution to warm applause from delegates, the conference president, Amos Wako, who is from Kenya said: “What we have decided shows the outcome when you remain engaged in the process. It shows that boycotts do not assist.”

“This is very good news indeed,” said Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights commissioner, who hosted the conference. “It’s the culmination of months of deliberation.”


Announcing the adoption of the resolution to warm applause from delegates, the conference president, Amos Wako, who is from Kenya said: “What we have decided shows the outcome when you remain engaged in the process. It shows that boycotts do not assist.”

I fully expect a lot of critics to focus on the language regarding foreign occupation and free expression. But in the meantime I think the administration has got to be reconsidering participating in the follow process, given how this turned out.

Plus, the outcome document is very progressive on a whole range of issues from calling for a aggressively punishing hate crimes to urging governments to embrace equal opportunity programs from establishing national human rights bodies to affirming the right to organize to calling for the humane treatment of migrant workers in addition to calling for the ratification of other U.N. social justice treaties.


U.S. Runs for Human Rts Council Seat But Durban II Still a No Go

9 04 2009

Last week, the  Obama administration announced it would run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in the next round of elections, a body that President Bush avoided and ignored.

In a press statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice referred to a need “for the Council to be balanced and credible” an explained that the U.S. is running for a the open seat because “we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council.”

Throughout the Bush years, U.N.-U.S. relations were always frosty to put it mildly.  Bush hardly felt comfortable around liberal internationalists of the American variety much less those from other countries steeped in global affairs. But his hostility toward the U.N. only hardened in the run up to the Iraq war where he failed to amass support for the March 2003 invasion. As early as the August 2003, President Bush alienated potential U.N. involvement in the creation of an Iraqi central government.

Of course, Dubya and company soon changed their minds once the Iraqi insurgency got going and the U.S. military found itself lacking the knowledge and skills for diffusing a post-conflict situation already cultivated by the U.N. peacekeeping and diplomatic corp.

But such a change of heart even if it was for out of desperation never extended to the Council, given how it was populated by some of the worse human rights abusers such as Sudan, Libya, and Cuba, who were eager to pass resolutions condemning Israel while also blocking scrutiny of treatment of their own citizens. To be fair, this is a problem that has vexed some of the most clear-eyed supporters of the U.N.

The legacy of that sort of politicization of the Council’s mission remains a huge problem even after the round of reforms in 2006, which dissolved the Human Rights Commission that was established in 1946.  The 06 reforms also nearly assured representation from some of the most repressive governments by allotting seats seats to countries based on regional blocs as opposed to a record of improvement.

That’s enough for critics of the Council, particularly Rice’s neoconservative predecessor John Bolton, believe the rights body is too fatally flawed and ineffective to warrant participation from the U.S. Never one to mince words former Ambassador Bolton reportedly told the New York Times, “You don’t show up at every ragtag little organization that comes into existence”.


Though its easy to dismiss Bolton’s criticism as shortsighted and irascible, it does evince a certain view of American power that still persists today in some quarters. The prestige of American power should not be diminished by engaging flawed institutions that provide cover to our adversaries. The world is against the U.S. and we must assert our influence whenever possible to ensure its power is preserved at worst and extended at best.

But hasn’t Bolton been paying attention? Our standing in the world has diminished as a result of human rights abuses during the Bush era. Torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo has done more to aid America’s detractors looking to deflect attention from their own human rights record as their criticize the U.S. and do so effectively.  One of the ways to counter these charges is to join the Human Rights Council and make sure that a proper comparison is made between the U.S and other countries on the Council, including the Sudans, Cubas, and Libyas of the world.

That said, the Obama administration is not going to participate in any U.N. forum even if it is human rights related. Consider U.N.’s upcoming conference on racism otherwise known as Durban II. The administration still won’t participate in it even though the latest agenda, or the outcome document, has been purged of nearly all of the things that it said it could not accept namely, references to reparations, strong criticisms of Israel, and severe limitations on freedom of expression.

Perhaps some may think that the U.S. sought to run for the Council seat as a way to placate critics for not participating in Durban II, but that’s a cynical misreading of the situation. As early as late January the administration was pondering joining the Human Rights Council.

The administration really fears that the whole affair will deteriorate into an anti-Israeli and anti-Western hate fest led by certain countries within the Organization of Islamic Conference. Its not an altogether irrational fear, but a very compelling one nonetheless.

Joining the Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction in overcoming that fear.

Obama G-20 Presser

3 04 2009

At his G-20 presser yesterday in London, President Obama deftly handled a question about the death of the Washington Consensus and the decline of American standing in the world. Jonthan Weismen of the Wall Street Journal asked ” is the declaration of the end of the Washington consensus evidence of the diminished authority that you feared was out there?”

After citing a few polls noting a favorable opinion of the U.S. and noting that American influence in the world still remains high, the president observed that the world has changed in ways that call for forging more  “partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions.”

He also cautioned against comparing the current G-20 summit to the Bretton Woods accords, which created the financial architecture of the post-World War II era.

“Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.” Well, if there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s a — that’s an easier negotiation. (Laughter.) But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world that we live in.

Its so refreshing to hear a U.S. president talk like that instead of fumbling around and simply looking out of place like Bush did. That kind of humility will certainly go a long way in restoring American standing in the world. But so will recognizing the efforts of other countries that have made significant strides during the last few decades.

And so that’s not a loss for America; it’s an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India — these are all countries on the move. And that’s good. That means there are millions of people — billions of people — who are working their way out of poverty. And over time, that potentially makes this a much more peaceful world.

And that’s the kind of leadership we need to show — one that helps guide that process of orderly integration without taking our eyes off the fact that it’s only as good as the benefits of individual families, individual children: Is it giving them more opportunity; is it giving them a better life? If we judge ourselves by those standards, then I think America can continue to show leadership for a very long time.

Drop the needle at the 2:07 mark in the video below to see the exchange between Obama and Weismen.

U.S. Considers Participating in Durban II

17 02 2009

Talk about trying to fly under the radar. Less than 24 hours after Congress passed the biggest spending bill in U.S. history, the State Department issues a press release announcing its considering participating in the controversial Durban II conference in April 2009.

The State Department will send a delegation to the February 16-19 consultations for the World Conference Against Racism as a means of evaluating the current direction of Conference preparations and whether U.S. participation in the Conference itself is warranted.

This will be the first opportunity the Administration has had to engage in the negotiations for the Durban Review, and – in line with our commitment to diplomacy – the U.S. has decided to send a delegation to engage in the negotiations on the text of the conference document.

The intent of our participation is to work to try to change the direction in which the Review Conference is heading. We hope to work with other countries that want the Conference to responsibly and productively address racism around the world.

Our participation in these informal negotiations does not indicate – and should not be misconstrued to indicate – that the United States will participate in April in the World Conference Against Racism itself. Nor does it indicate that we will necessarily participate in future preparations for the Conference. These decisions will be taken at a later date, depending on the results that we see from the negotiating process.

Perhaps, emphasizing the fact that “informal negotiations” are not meant to be “construed” as a final decision concerning participation sounds way too noncommital for most people. But that should  come as no surprise to those who follow State Department pronouncements. Additionally, this is indeed a step up in clarity from just a few weeks ago. “I’ll have to take a look and see. I don’t think the new Administration has spoken to that issue yet, but I’ll take a look and see if we have any more we want to say on that,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood when asked about pariticipating in Durban II.

Amb Susan Rice Wants to Engage

27 01 2009

At her first presser yesterday as the newly minted United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice raised eyebrows when she said she looked forward to “engaging in vigorous diplomacy, that includes direct diplomacy with Iran.” To many, this sounded as if President Obama was willing to sit down and have tea with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. But this is very unlikely to be the case.

Ambassador Rice was probably referring to the need to engage Iran on a number of fronts including their support for Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shiite factions in Iraq. Who knows maybe how they might be helpful in eliminating a resurgent Taliban, in Afghanistan, a persistent irritant to the government in Tehran well before the American invasion.

For his part, President Obama himself in an interview with Arab television network Al Arabiya noted that while Iran has not always behave in ways “conducive to peace and prosperity in the region” it is still important “for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are.” He also went on to say, “And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us. So, it seems for now the president is content with simply keeping the lines of communication open in laying the ground work for more robust diplomacy.

Ambassador Rice also took time to remark on the on the war in the Gaza strip. Ambassador Rice prefaced her remarks regarding the ceasefire with expressing concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. “…with respect to Gaza, let me say that you have heard the President speak very forthrightly about his grave concern about the current humanitarian crisis,” she told the UN press corp.

Perhaps this seems small but its important to note that her comment did not begin with reiterating the already broadly accepted and frequently invoked claim that Israel has a right to self-defense. Instead she began discussing the humanitarian situation and calling for a “durable cease fire” that would ultimately lead to “border crossings to open and be available for humanitarian as well as day-to-day economic development imperatives.”

This is a striking different tune that what Bush administration has and have said. Amb. Rice’s predecessor, Bush appointee John Bolton, recently argued out-going Secretary of State Condi Rice at the UN Security Council should have vetoed instead of abstaining from voting on the cease fire measure, which would have killed its passage. Anything short of a veto would have been an abdication of our “international leadership role.”

Interestingly enough, Ambassador Rice was not asked whether or not the U.S. will participate in the World Conference on Racism, also known as Durban II or about the U.S. joining the U.N.  Human Rights Council. She was, however, asked about it at her Congressional confirmation hearing earlier this month.

According to the transcript, Senator Bill Nelson expressed his disappointment with how the Durban Conference “got sidetracked on attacking Israel rather than dealing with human rights” only to further complicate Mid-East politics in general. He also commented on how the U.S. should be prepared to reassess its participation in the Human Rights Council if certain countries are going to use that body, along with Durban itself, as “a tool to beat up on one of our allies or if it becomes an objective to undermine U.S. policy.”

In her reply, Dr. Rice astutely sidestepped making any specific remarks about Durban and simply sought to reassure Nelson that she and everyone else in the incoming administration took Israel’s security seriously. She then quickly pivoted to strongly criticizing a resolution on a Gaza cease fire that originated in the Human Rights Council, which enjoyed the support of many African and Arab countries, but not much from Western nations.

News reports say that the Human Rights Council resolution mainly focused on human rights violations in Gaza by Israel and encouraged the UN to do fact finding regarding those abuses. Rice said the resolution was “a classic example of the utterly imbalanced and reprehensible kinds of resolutions that have, too often, emerged from the Human Rights Council.”

(Note: the Human Rights resolution that passed on Jan 12th is different from the UN Security Council resolution that passed on Jan 8th almost unanimously save the lone abstention by the U.S.)

By the same token, it was clear that Rice errs on the side of engaging in the UN process even if the problems seem intractable. Referring to the outcome of the resolution, Rice said at the hearing it “just begs the question of what might have been different with U.S. participation and leadership. It seems to me hard to imagine that we would not have sought to work with, and indeed prevail upon, many of our allies to stand with Canada and with us in opposition to such a resolution.”

Obviously, engagement does not mean going along with anything member states favor at the U.N., but being apart of the process and taking it seriously.

Clearly, Ambassador Rice is optimistic about the future of U.S.-U.N. relations.  Perhaps this is the dawning of a new era of American liberal internationalist foreign policy.

Misreading the Bush Doctrine in the WaPo

26 01 2009

On Sunday, the Washington Post published a story with the following headline: “Bush Doctrine Stalls Holder Confirmation.” Now I understand that headline writers have quite a bit of leeway in deciding what they title certain articles, but there’s a difference between being creative and misrepresenting the main idea of a story.

The lead in the article says, “Even as Senate Republicans seek assurances that new leaders at the Justice Department will not prosecute former government officials over national security abuses, one of the highest-profile investigations of the Bush era is grinding to a close.” The rest of the article describes how Senate Republicans want to assurances from Eric Holder that he will not seek to investigate and prosecute those who may have tortured or otherwise abused detainees under interrogation and the destruction of tapes recording those sessions. That has nothing to do with the Bush Doctrine.

Simply stated, the Bush doctrine holds that the U.S. has a right to extinguish national security threats with the use of military force against a country or nonstate actor as preventive measure. That is to say, we may wage preventive war to anticipate threats before they blossom into full blown eminent threats. This is a radical idea because international law calls for threats to at least be eminent before claiming to wage an attack in self defense against an enemy. Otherwise, there is no way of truly distinguishing a war of choice from a war of necessity.

By contrast, the WaPo article on Senate Republicans stalling the confirmation of Eric Holder as Attorney General has to do with pressuring him not to investigate officials interrogating war on terror suspects, not his views on what constitute the judicious use of military force. One is a question of who to prosecute and what for, whereas the other has to do when we should go to war against or at least strike an enemy.

Its hard to imagine that the folks at the WaPo thought that making these kind of distinctions do not matter.

Republican Pushback on Gitmo

25 01 2009

Apparently, President Obama’s series of executive orders to shut down Gitmo and the network of secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency within a year has not gone over well with many Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Representative Steven King has made the case that Obama’s plan amounts to granting terrorists a path to U.S. citizenship and a free pass to strike again. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham still wants to preserve the option of detaining of at least some war on terror suspects or enemy combatants indefinitely.

House Republican Leader John Boehner has even gone so far as to suggest that the well documented abuses at Gitmo are somehow exaggerated. Earlier this week, the Ohio Congressman told the Politico, “I don’t know that there is a terrorist treated better anywhere in the world than what has happened at Guantanamo.”

He also went on to say, “We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build a facility that has more comforts than a lot of Americans get. … I believe they have been treated fairly.”

That of course does not square with a recent bipartisan Senate Armed Services report which concluded:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there. Secretary Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 approval of Mr. Haynes’s recommendation that most of the techniques contained in GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request be authorized, influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques, including military working dogs, forced nudity, and stress positions, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But its important to understand the human dimension of all of this and why this chapter of the Bush administration’s legacy needs to be closed. In the January 15th issue of the New York Review of Books, Georgetown law professor David Cole quotes the U.S. Army log describing the tortuous interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th 9/11 highjacker, at Gitmo. The descriptions of the brutality are nothing short of harrowing.

Detainee began to cry. Visibly shaken. Very emotional. Detainee cried. Disturbed. Detainee began to cry. Detainee butted SGT R in the eye. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning. Uncomfortable. Moaning. Turned his head from left to right. Began crying hard spontaneously. Crying and praying. Began to cry. Claimed to have been pressured into making a confession. Falling asleep. Very uncomfortable. On the verge of breaking. Angry. Detainee struggled. Detainee asked for prayer. Very agitated. Yelled. Agitated and violent. Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Pushed guard. Dizzy. Headache. Near tears. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Complained of dizziness. Tired. Agitated. Yelled for Allah. Started making faces. Near crying. Irritated. Annoyed. Detainee attempted to injure two guards. Became very violent and irate. Attempted to liberate himself. Struggled. Made several attempts to stand up. Screamed….

Thankfully, 53 percent of the American public support using a different system for handling detainees than the military commissions process at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Another 58 percent support an complete ban on using torture as a interrogation technique, according to a recent ABC News poll.

Sure, Obama himself admitted that shutting down Gitmo “is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize” and that many of the so-called enemy combatants are still dangerous enough to pose a threat, but we can still try them in our own civil system or in the military courts-martial system for war crimes.

As Obama noted earlier this week, the U.S. will win this fight and “We are going to win it on our own terms.”