Columns - Inside the glass house

Can Obama clean up Bush's Augean stable?

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK - A morally-tainted Bush administration, accused of violating international conventions, torturing prisoners and transgressing the rule of law, clearly lost its international stature over the last eight years. All, or most, of these abuses took place under the pretext of fighting international terrorism.

The US was never taken seriously -- at least not at the United Nations -- when it preached human rights to the outside world while refusing to practise it in its own backyard. The political double standards could not have been justified on any grounds.

As a result of its poor standing at the UN and expecting rejection by the world body, the US refused to run for a seat in the Human Rights Council (HRC) -- not once, but twice. The excuse proffered in public was that the HRC was "relentlessly focusing" on human rights abuses by Israel, while ignoring such violations by Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, Belarus and Cuba. So, the HRC had no credibility, the US argued.

US President-elect Barack Obama looks over the pie selection as he orders lunch at Manny's Coffee Shop and Deli in Chicago, Illinois November 21

But the real reason for skipping a seat in the HRC was the fear that it would be overwhelmingly defeated on a vote by secret ballot in the 192-member General Assembly. There was very little love lost between the US and most member states. Since the ballot was secret, there was speculation that even some of America's closest political allies would abandon the Bush administration at voting time.

And very rightly, the White House shied away because it may not have succeeded in garnering the 96 votes, and suffer a humiliating defeat. In May 2001, the US did lose its seat on the former Human Rights Commission (the predecessor to the Human Rights Council) for the first time since it was set up in 1947.

Perhaps all that may change when Barack Obama takes office, come January 20. In a widely-watched TV interview last week, he said he would restore America's moral stature overseas.

The President-elect said he would keep two of his campaign promises: close down the notorious Guantanamo detention facility where terrorism suspects have been held for years without any recourse to justice, and secondly, ban the torture of prisoners (which was being practised not only in Guantanamo but also in US run prisons in both Iraq and Afghanistan).

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture and I'm going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world," Obama said last week.

The London-based human rights organization Amnesty International has asked the President-elect to make human rights central to his new administration and bring the country in line with its international obligations. In the first 100 days of his administration, Obama has also been asked to ensure that an independent commission is set up specifically to investigate abuses committed by the US government in its "war on terror."

Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of over three dozen senior foreign policy leaders, both from the Democratic and Republican parties, issued a public statement last week urging the incoming Obama administration to help lead a new era of international cooperation by strengthening the US-UN relationship. The signatories included four former Cabinet Secretaries, eight former Senators, four former UN Ambassadors, three former National Security Advisors and two former Governors.

The statement, released by the United Nations Foundation and Partnership for Secure America, said that in today's rapidly changing world of interdependence, globalization, and transnational threats, the US must balance a strong military with creative diplomacy to secure America's interests.

"We must recognize that the United Nations is a critical platform and partner for advancing international cooperation on today's global threats and challenges, such as poverty and disease, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change." The UN cannot succeed without strong US leadership and support, and the next President has a unique opportunity to revitalize the US-UN relationship as a symbol of America's commitment to constructive international cooperation.

"This investment will pay off substantially by helping to enhance our standing internationally and strengthen our ability to keep America safe and strong," the statement added. The statement also identified nine specific steps the new administration can take to bolster international cooperation and address global problems through the United Nations.

The incoming Obama administration has been urged to make an early and visible statement on the UN expressing American commitment to international cooperation through the UN; lead on UN efforts on nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, climate change and the Millennium Development Goals; and play a constructive role in UN reform efforts and updating the UN's management and budgetary systems.
Additionally, the new administration has been asked to pay US debts on time, work to remove Congressional caps, and alter the schedule of US payments so that it is in a position to honour its treaty obligations; and engage with the UN on the shared interests of stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan and supporting effective democratic governments in those countries.

At the same time, the new administration has been urged to obtain a seat on the faltering Human Rights Council and work to influence it from within; underscore US commitment to the system of international agreements and treaties by seeking Senate consent for key treaties signed but not ratified; place well-qualified Americans in open positions at the UN; help manage the growing workload assigned to UN peacekeeping by providing logistical and management expertise and other support needed to enhance UN capacities.

A tall order, but will Obama rise to the occasion?

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