U.N. Rights Chief Takes Her Case to Congress

Arbour Fights Threatened Funding Cut, Antisemitism Charges

By Marc Perelman

Published July 11, 2007, issue of July 13, 2007.
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United Nations - It took three years for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, to make her first official visit to Washington. When she finally made her way to the capital last month, the cause she found herself advocating was none other than her own.

The House and Senate have introduced bills that call for cutting off American funds to the much-maligned U.N. Human Rights Council, to which Arbour’s office serves as a secretariat. And in the wake of comments that Arbour made about a British union’s proposed boycott of Israeli academics, New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner has demanded Arbour’s dismissal, saying that her “antisemitic statements” made her unfit to serve as high commissioner.

With Congress casting an increasingly critical eye on the U.N.’s human rights operations, Arbour traveled from Geneva to distance her office from the Human Rights Council; the council’s first anniversary last month unleashed a torrent of criticism for its failure to shed the politicization that characterized the Commission on Human Rights, which it replaced.

“The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner is not the Human Rights Council,” Arbour told the Forward at U.N. headquarters in New York, summarizing what she had told her interlocutors in Washington, including Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Lantos. “For those who have lost faith in the council, it is very important that they don’t write off the office of the high commissioner.”

Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a bill introduced by Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman that would bar American funding of the Human Rights Council for at least two years. A similar amendment sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, was adopted by the House last month.

The bills do not include provisions for cutting American contributions to Arbour’s office, which currently make up 22% of the office’s $245 million budget, and the Senate bill was amended to include a presidential waiver. But according to Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaunstein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, the legislation is nonetheless cause for concern, and not just for Arbour.

“Enactment of those measures, even with a waiver, begins a descent on a slippery slope that poses more danger to the entire human rights enterprise at the U.N. than most people realize,” Gaer said.

Arbour, a Canadian judge who was the first prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s human rights record. During last summer’s war in Lebanon, she suggested that Israeli leaders could be charged with war crimes.

In addition to Arbour having earned the ire of Washington and Jerusalem for such public statements, last month a letter from Weiner to the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, accused her of antisemitism. The New York Democrat expressed outrage that Arbour had said it was a “good thing” for Britain’s largest labor union to consider a boycott of Israeli goods and academics. He argued that she was “unfit to hold such an important office and should be dismissed immediately.”

Arbour is pulling no punches in her defense, arguing that the quote, which was given at a May 31 press briefing, was taken out of context.

“I said I thought it was a good thing for academics to have a debate on this issue but that, as human rights commissioner, I did not have an opinion on the outcome,” she told the Forward. “To base such attacks on those remarks cheapens the debate tremendously.”

Her boss, it appears, concurs. A Ban spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, told the Forward that after reviewing the issue, the secretary general concluded that Arbour “made no antisemitic remarks, nor was anything antisemitic implied in her remarks.”

Major Jewish groups have also refrained from leveling charges of antisemitism against Arbour. But they are not so quick to acquit the high commissioner when it comes to judging the first year of the Human Rights Council, during which it adopted nine country-specific condemnatory resolutions, every single one of them focusing on Israel.

While she acknowledges that the singling out of Israel is a problem, she points out that the agenda item allows scrutiny of the actions of all parties — an improvement over a similar item adopted by its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, which only examined Israeli abuses. Moreover, she predicts that the council’s record will improve in the coming years, first and foremost because the council will examine all U.N. member states.

Asked about her role vis-à-vis the council, she explained that her office was merely serving as its secretariat and that she had little influence over its decisions, including the recent selection of Libya to chair a conference on racism in 2009. “It is a self-propelled inter-government body and a quintessentially political body,” she said.

While her critics in the Jewish communal world agree, they regret that she did not use her moral voice to shape a better outcome. They also note that she had supported the agreement reached last month and even lobbied her own government to back it.

“No one is saying she’s the reason for the council debacle, but she has a major role as a moral voice in the U.N. human rights apparatus,” said Hillel Neuer, who heads the Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch. “The question is whether she has done all she could to speak out against the singling out of Israel. I don’t think she has done even the minimum.”

Arbour countered that while exercising her moral authority would satisfy many, “the chances of it accomplishing anything are relatively small.”

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