Monday, October 5, 2009

Op-Ed: Will the Real Obama Administration Please Stand Up?

by Josh Ruebner* Last week the UN Human Rights Council debated the Goldstone Report, issued in September by the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. The 575-page report calls for accountability for the “violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and possible war crimes and crimes against humanity” committed before, during, and after Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 assault on the occupied Gaza Strip. After coming under severe pressure from both the United States and Israel, the Palestinian Authority decided to withdraw its resolution calling for the UN Human Rights Council to accept the recommendations of the Goldstone Report, deferring action on it until the council’s next session in March. When the report comes up again next spring for a decision, how the United States votes will determine which of two contradictory impulses within the Obama Administration—respect for the universality of human rights versus shielding Israel from the consequences of its human rights violations—guides its approach to its newly-won seat on the UN Human Rights Council. That the Obama Administration is even grappling with its stance toward the UN Human Rights Council is a welcome improvement over the Bush Administration’s policy of boycotting the institution. Explaining the Bush Administration’s rejection of the council, former State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack alleged in March 2007 that it “has thus far not proved itself to be a credible body,” because, “There has been a nearly singular focus on issues related to Israel, for example, to the exclusion of examining issues of real concern to the international system.” It was with some relief then that human rights advocates cheered the Obama Administration’s March 2009 decision to reverse course and seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Repudiating Bush-era unilateralism, Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, declared, "The U.S. is seeking election to the Council because we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights.” In April 2009, in support of its candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, the Obama Administration articulated that “The deep commitment of the United States to championing the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is driven by the founding values of our nation and the conviction that international peace, security, and prosperity are strengthened when human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and protected.” On the strength of this and other pledges to promote human rights, the United States won a seat on the council in May. Upon assuming its seat on the UN Human Rights Council this month, Dr. Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, continued the Obama Administration’s strong rhetorical support for the universality of human rights. “We can not pick and choose which of these [human] rights we embrace nor select who among us are entitled to them…These rights extend to all, and the United States can not accept that any among us would be condemned to live without them.” Brimmer also seemed to confirm that the United States will have only one standard by which to judge human rights violations within the UN Human Rights Council. “Make no mistake; the United States will not look the other way in the face of serious human rights abuses. The truth must be told, the facts brought to light and the consequences faced.” Yet, already, the reality of U.S. policy on the UN Human Rights Council appears to signal otherwise. Speaking less diplomatically than in the State Department press release announcing the U.S. bid for a seat, Rice told Politico in April that the real reason why the Obama Administration decided to seek a seat was to fight against "the anti-Israel crap" within the council. Neither does the Obama Administration’s response to the Goldstone Report auger well for the United States living up to its word to hold human rights violators accountable. Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Crowley urged that the “report should not be used as a mechanism to add impediments to getting back to the peace process,” as if holding human rights abusers accountable and establishing peace are mutually exclusive affairs. Speaking at the UN, Rice called the UN mission “unbalanced, one sided and basically unacceptable,” even though the Goldstone Report documented human rights violations by Palestinian armed group and the Palestinian Authority, in addition to those committed by Israel. Under withering criticism of the Goldstone Report from Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill—Rep. Gary Ackerman went so far as to accuse its authors of living in a “self-righteous fantasyland”—the White House reportedly promised to Jewish organizations in an off-the-record briefing to “quash” the report, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. To do so, the United States reportedly will try to permanently kill the report in the UN Human Rights Council, a body with no effective enforcement mechanism, and prevent it from going to the General Assembly, Security Council, and possibly even the International Criminal Court, as recommended in the report. Yet widespread support for the Goldstone Report recommendations does exist within the United States, as evidenced by the more than 150 organizations that signed an open letter to Rice organized by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation urging the United States to vote in favor of the recommendations in the UN Human Rights Council. Should the United States decide to vote against the Goldstone Report in March, it will be a major letdown for those who took seriously the Obama Administration’s rhetorical commitment to advancing human rights. * Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 300 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. The US Campaign’s open letter to Ambassador Rice can be viewed by clicking here.