U.N. sets its sights on U.S. arrogance

Policy: After years of ignored agreements and unpaid dues, the United States has incurred the wrath of the international community.

May 13, 2001|By Phyllis Bennis

GEORGE BUSH'S penchant for going it alone in the world is beginning to bear consequences. Recently, governments from around the world voted to bump the United States off the United Nations' Human Rights Commission.

The United States' setback was not the result of a back-room campaign orchestrated by human rights violators or enemies of the United States. It was an expression of frustration by Washington's friends and allies, especially in Western Europe, at what they see as increasing U.S. rejection of the United Nations and other international commitments, including those on human rights.

As Harold Koh, human rights chief in the Clinton administration, wrote in the Washington Post, "the world was trying to teach us a lesson."

United Nations bashers have raised a red herring by pointing to the presence of Sudan, Libya and Sierra Leone on the human rights commission. These nations have abysmal human rights records, but the United States was actually replaced by Sweden.

Like most U.N. agencies, the commission's membership is determined by regional groups. The Western Group, including the United States and Europe, was allotted three seats for this election cycle but fielded four candidates - France, Austria, Sweden and the United States. If any one of those European allies had withdrawn, the United States would have been guaranteed another term.

Libya, Sudan and Sierra Leone were nominated by the Africa Group, which rotates its members.

The Europeans, and others at the United Nations, know something most Americans don't know - that despite lots of high-sounding human rights rhetoric, the United States routinely refuses to sign or ratify important human rights agreements.

And sometimes, the United States violates internationally agreed-upon human rights standards.

Consider the recent record:

Alone among its Western allies, the United States continues to impose the death penalty. It even allows imposition of a death sentence against minors and those found to be mentally incompetent, in direct violation of international human rights law.

The United States has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a distinction it shares with only Somalia. It opposed a key provision prohibiting child soldiers under the age of 18, because the Pentagon found it convenient to continue recruiting 17-year-olds for the U.S. military.

The United States has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Women, and consistently opposes U.N. efforts to make women's right to inherit property an internationally recognized human right.

This kind of disrespect of the United Nations and global opinion has been going on for years. But Washington's European allies have been especially horrified by some of the most recent examples. Just days before the U.N. vote, the Bush administration announced its intention to abandon the requirements of the Kyoto treaty on climate change, and to unilaterally renounce the almost 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that has been a linchpin of strategic arms control since 1972.

After years of big talk but little United States' accountability on multilateral decision-making and international treaties, it's not surprising the Europeans were furious.

There have been other instances when the United States rejected international accords.

Washington's refusal to sign the treaty banning anti-personnel land mines infuriated countries throughout the world, especially those where the lives of thousands of children and other noncombatants have been destroyed by explosive devices left behind long after the conflict that spawned them.

The United States' failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty enraged countries across the globe.

Then, there's Israel's claim that the United Nations has no authority to judge its actions, a view rejected by European and Third World countries. They see the U.S. rejection of international protection for the Palestinians, and its acceptance of Israel's settlements in occupied territory as U.S. support for continuing violations of human rights and international law.

But the United States was not booted off the human rights commission only because of perceived hypocrisy on human rights. It was, as Powell said, "a vote looking for a venue to happen."

In fact, in another secret ballot on the same day, the United States lost another influential U.N. position, the seat on the International Narcotics Control Board that it had held for two terms. Together, the losses reflect growing global dismay at what is widely viewed as a "go it alone" tendency in U.S. foreign policy, an approach that dismisses the significance of multi-lateralism, international law and the United Nations itself.

Some U.S. officials claimed that the current lack of a U.N. ambassador made Washington's defeat easier. John D. Negroponte is slated for appointment by the Bush administration. But it is unclear his presence would have helped prevent these humiliating defeats for the United States.

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