The Obama administration got a new “shellacking” this morning, this one entirely voluntary. In the name of improving America’s image abroad, it sent three top officials from the State Department to Geneva’s U.N. Human Rights Council to be questioned about America’s human rights record by the likes of Cuba, Iran, and North Korea.
This was the first so-called “universal periodic review” of human rights in the U.S. by the Council, which the Obama administration decided to join in 2009.
The move represents a striking departure from prior American foreign policy, which has been to ratify selected human rights treaties after due consideration and submit American policy-makers to recommendations based on well-conceived standards accepted by the United States.
But in the three-hour inquisition which took place this morning, Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor responded with “thanks to very many of the delegations for thoughtful comments and suggestions” shortly after Cuba said the U.S. blockade of Cuba was a “crime of genocide,” Iran “condemned and expressed its deep concern over the situation of human rights” in the United States, and North Korea said it was “concerned by systematic widespread violations committed by the United States at home and abroad.”
According to the Council’s procedure, all U.N. members are given carte blanche to comment and make recommendations to the state in the docket. But since only three hours are allotted per state, the practice has emerged of allowing approximately only the first sixty to speak.
This morning fifty-six countries lined-up for the opportunity to have at the U.S. representatives, many standing in line overnight a day ago in order to be near the top of the list. Making it to the head of the line were Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and North Korea.
Recommendations to improve the U.S. human rights record included Cuba’s advice to end “violations against migrants and mentally ill persons” and “ensure the right to food and health.”
Iran – currently poised to stone an Iranian woman for adultery – told the U.S. “effectively to combat violence against women.”
North Korea – which systematically starves a captive population – told the U.S. “to address inequalities in housing, employment and education” and “prohibit brutality…by law enforcement officials.”
Libya complained about U.S. “racism, racial discrimination and intolerance.”
In response to the many Guantanamo-related criticisms, the State Department’s top legal adviser, Harold Koh, blamed the failure to close the facility on others: “President Obama cannot close Guantanamo alone. That also involves our allies, the courts, and our Congress.”
The U.S. delegation was at pains to impress the international crowd. Esther Brimmer, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organizations, told the assembled: “it is an honor to be in this chamber.”
She was referring to the meeting place of the U.N. Human Rights Council – the new and improved lead U.N. human rights body created by the General Assembly in 2006 over the negative vote cast by the United States. In this very chamber the Council has adopted more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all other 191 UN member states combined. Calling the chamber home, for instance, are Council members Libya, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China.
The Obama administration has until Tuesday to decide if it accepts or rejects the recommendations. The whole list of criticisms and recommendations, as well as the U.S. response, will be put together in a document distributed globally by the U.N. for the future edification of America-bashers around the world.
Administration officials are attempting to spin the exercise as one of justifiable and cathartic mea culpa on the world stage. But the impression they really left was one of moral and cultural relativism in which American leadership has been squandered to the detriment of victims suffering egregious human rights violations worldwide.
Anne Bayefsky is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust.