Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

President Obama's Priorities: Human Rights Be Damned

Sunday, March 28, 2010

This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared at Commentary Magazine.

On Friday, March 26, 2010, the UN Human Rights Council's month-long session ended, along with any justification for believing that President Obama is a champion of human rights. The president insisted that America join the UN's lead human-rights body for the first time very early in his presidency, and the consequences are now painfully clear. The enemies of democracy and freedom are having a field day at the expense of American interests and values.

The Council, which meets in Geneva, is the personal playground of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. They hold the balance of power by controlling the Asian and African regional groups, which together form a majority at the Council. The Council's agenda is accordingly fixated on issues of priority to the Islamic bloc -- number one, delegitimizing Israel; number two, trumping free speech in the name of Islam; and number three, avoiding any criticism of human-rights violations in their own backyards. None of which has anything to do with protecting human rights.

More troubling than the Council's growing infamy, however, is the Obama administration's relationship to it. The America on display in Geneva is an embarrassment, and the only people oblivious to how the U.S. is perceived by those assembled are the American representatives themselves.

Having jumped on the Council bandwagon last year without insisting on any reform-minded preconditions, U.S. diplomats now sit there taking it on the chin and lending predictable and immutable Council routines undeserved legitimacy. This past session, the Council adopted five resolutions condemning Israel and fewer resolutions on the rest of the world combined: one each on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, North Korea, Burma/Myanmar, and Guinea.

The other 187 states on the planet got a free pass from the Council, notwithstanding the pressing reality of Nigeria's butchered Christians, Saudi Arabia's gender apartheid, Egypt's systematic torture, China's iron fist, Sudan's genocide, and Russia's slain human-rights defenders. In fact, over the entire four-year history of the Council, more than half of all resolutions and decisions condemning any state have been directed at Israel alone.

This session, one of these Israel resolutions created yet another UN committee dedicated to the demonization of the Jewish state. The new body will be charged with monitoring compliance with the notorious Goldstone Report, which contains the diabolical accusation that Israel intended deliberately to murder civilians in Gaza rather than to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks aimed at the Israeli civilian population. A 2009 General Assembly resolution had already called for "credible" investigations within a three-month period and more "follow-up."

Any Israeli investigation on the Gaza war that does not end in self-immolation will be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, in January Israel gave the UN a report running more than 60 pages detailing its continuing supervision and evaluation of the actions of the Israel Defense Forces, in accordance with the rule of law. The Palestinian side responded to the General Assembly's deadline by submitting a piece of paper from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. He announced that he had set up a committee four days before the time ran out to begin to plan an investigation. Needless to say, the Palestinians who actually run Gaza and the terror campaign against Israeli citizens in the south of Israel, namely Hamas, did nothing at all.

This new UN Goldstone-implementation committee will be added to the existing collection of UN standing bodies already fixated on Israel-bashing, such as the UN Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the UN Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, and the UN Division for Palestinian Rights. Dozens of reports on Palestinian rights and Israeli wrongs are also commissioned every year from myriad UN actors, including the secretary-general.

Congress has adopted provisions that deny American funds to the Inalienable Rights Committee, the Special Committee and the UN Palestinian Division, and unless it now takes quick action, American taxpayers will be footing 22 percent of the bill of this latest Goldstone outrage.

As happened with all the anti-Israel resolutions, the Obama administration perfunctorily voted against -- to no avail. The administration then pulled its punches when explaining its vote on the Goldstone-implementation resolution. American Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe noted that her full speech could be found somewhere on a website, and then proceeded to make a telling omission from that speech when delivering her oral remarks, which were webcast around the world. When she read the entirety of the first few paragraphs, which called on both sides to conduct investigations, she skipped over just one sentence therein: "Hamas is a terrorist group and has neither the legitimacy nor the willingness to investigate credibly its repeated and deliberate violations of international law." Apparently, an honest statement that points out the obvious flaw in the logic of Goldstone-inspired investigations wouldn't have fit neatly into Obama's engagement strategy -- or sit well with his preferred audience.

The Obama administration lost every time it called for the vote on a resolution at the Council session. But it failed even to get that close on the most troubling human-rights issues of our time, such as Iran. Despite the Iranian government's systematic brutality and the presence of American hostages in Iranian prisons, the Obama administration decided not to table a single resolution critical of Iran, nor to ask the Council to convene a special session to focus on human-rights violations in Iran. (The Council has had six special sessions on Israel alone.)

Administration apologists had plenty of excuses. They whined that they didn't have the votes to convene a special session; and even if they did, they were still short the votes to guarantee a robust resolution critical of Iran and they were concerned that a failure would diminish the Council's credibility. For many years at the previous UN Human Rights Commission, the U.S. put forward a resolution condemning China -- which never passed -- as a matter of principle. For this administration, however, the reputation of the UN is an end in itself.

American diplomats also claimed they put forward no resolution and called for no special session because it was up to the Europeans to take the lead on Iran. Perceived European "neutrality" would garner more support. In turn, the Europeans (worried about their lucrative contracts with Iran) claimed that the U.S. should take the lead.

The most widely trumpeted American (and European) excuse for going soft on Iran was that any attempt to criticize the country would prompt a wave of sympathy that would improve Iran's chances of becoming a Council member. Council elections are scheduled for May, and American diplomats fretted that the successful election of candidate Iran would harm the Council's credentials. Since such human-rights role models as Angola, Cuba, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are already members of the Council (and come May, Libya is a shoo-in, because the slate of African states has been fixed), the idea of preserving membership quality on the Council is a very bad joke.

The administration's foot-in-mouth foray into the Human Rights Council also became evident when the Council adopted a resolution on the defamation of religions. Hoping further to ingratiate itself with the "Muslim world," Obama diplomats at the last Council meeting in September co-sponsored a resolution on freedom of expression with Egypt, a country which doesn't have freedom of expression. In order to win Egyptian support, U.S. negotiators stomached references to "special duties and responsibilities" on the exercise of free speech and "voluntary codes of ethical conduct" on the media. In return, Egypt took the very first opportunity at this Council session to throw the free-speech fašade overboard. It championed a resolution attacking freedom of expression in the name of defending Islam from "defamation." The resolution is entitled the defamation of religions, but Islam is the only religion the Council deemed worthy of mention.

In a final dismal spectacle, the only resolution the administration did put forward over the entire four-week meeting crashed and burned. The American proposal had been designed to forestall efforts by Islamic states to write free-speech curbs into international law. The battle is over support for drafting so-called complementary standards -- which claim to complement existing laws combating racism and related intolerance but which in fact will undermine them. For example, in this context Algeria has advocated rewriting the definition of anti-semitism, arguing that complementary standards should "end impunity" for "anti-Semitic policies directed against people of Arab descent in particular and extended by association to Muslims worldwide."

When Obama's representatives learned that African and Asian states vehemently objected to their resolution on the work of the committee on complementary standards, they simply withdrew it. Not only did they withdraw it, they then sought to manufacture the appearance of harmony by throwing American support behind the rival African resolution, which pushed the process of drafting complementary standards forward. Even the European Union balked and refused to support the African text.

Many in the corridors of the Council meeting mistakenly believe that the Obama contingent is some combination of na´ve, idyllic, weak, and pathetic. I give the president more credit than that. The Council's record was clear when Obama decided to join it, and any first grader is capable of doing the math that proves the inability of any Western government to change the Council's course. Contributing to an aura of credibility surrounding this twisted and incorrigible institution is, therefore, a solid piece of evidence of President Obama's priorities -- good relations with the Muslim world, poor relations with the state of Israel, and human rights be damned.