Vivienne Walt / TIME Magazine – 2010-11-07 22:04:49
GENEVA (November 5, 2010) — As if the Obama Administration didn’t have its hands full defending its policies in Washington in what has been a grueling election week, Friday saw about 30 senior officials from the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense subjected to another grilling — thousands of miles away, at the UN’s Council for Human Rights in Geneva.
In a three-hour presentation on the US human rights record, officials confronted deep skepticism from countries, including such rights abusers as Iran and Cuba, about issues ranging from capital punishment and torture to President Obama’s failure to shut the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Responding to the criticism, State Department senior legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh, told the Council: “The United States does not torture and it will not torture…. Between Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo we have conducted hundreds of investigations regarding detainee abuse allegations.”
The review presented by the US government of its own human rights record was a first. Under new U.N. rules aimed at greater accountability, each member country of the Human Rights Council is required to report on its human rights situation for scrutiny by other countries, including many with whom the US has tense relationships — and which are heavily criticized by Washington for their human rights violations.
Administration officials spent months drafting the 29-page document, which covers such relatively mundane subjects as housing and education, as well as issues of racism and of abuses by US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After making their presentation on Nov. 5, US delegates hosted a town-hall meeting with dozens of American activists who had traveled to Geneva to voice their criticisms of the Administration’s record.
During the often testy 90-minute exchange, one man in the audience lashed out at the official denial that the US engages in torture. “Why does this statement keep getting made, against all the evidence to the contrary?” he asked. Koh replied: “President Obama has made crystal clear his intention to prosecute torture.” (Read What Prisoners are Reading at Guantanamo.)
US participation in the Human Rights Council was a political gamble by the President, who decided shortly after his inauguration to end the US boycott of the organization and send the first US ambassador to the body.
President George W. Bush had shunned the Council, and many Republican politicians have dismissed it as a toothless talk shop geared to relentless bashing of the United States and Israel; the council’s four-monthly sessions include a standing resolution protesting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
After the rout suffered by Democrats in the midterm elections, US delegates in Geneva spoke bluntly of the tough battles they expect to face in Congress over the issues raised in the Council. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner has, for example, vowed to keep Guantanamo open; last March he told CNN that he would not vote to shut the detention center “if you put a gun to my head.”
The US officials in Geneva appealed to activists to keep lobbying for Guantanamo’s closure. “I hardly sense a groundswell of political support for the notion of closing Guantanamo,” Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told them during the town hall meeting. “We’re committed to doing that but we cannot do it on our own.”
Whether pressure from the UN human rights council will help or hinder Obama at home is another question. One year after he appointed an ambassador to the organization, US officials are still assessing what their participation has brought them.
The ambassador, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe — a former Silicon Valley lawyer who arrived in Geneva last April without a single day’s political experience — told TIME last month that her presence has broadened the council’s human rights agenda, by securing votes that are important to the US Administration such as commitments on free speech and women’s rights in repressive countries.
“If the US is not here, there is a complete vacuum of leadership which is filled with parties with which we have fundamentally different ideas,” she said. “The dynamics here are political and ideological.” As much, perhaps, as they are in Washington.
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