Failure of Leadership

by James Kirchick | August 10, 2009

Last week, the White House released a list of recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that the United States government can afford a civilian. Among the 16 awardees are truly great figures: breast cancer philanthropist Nancy Goodman Brinker, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. President Obama also made history by choosing the first openly gay recipients of the Medal of Freedom, former tennis star Billie Jean King, and, in a truly inspired move, bestowed one to the late San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Standing out on this distinguished list, however, is Mary Robinson. The first female president of Ireland, Robinson served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002. And it was in that capacity that she presided over the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, also known as the Durban conference. Ostensibly convened for the purpose of combating "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," the gathering was hijacked by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and devolved into a gutter of Third World finger pointing, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and crude anti-Semitism. When asked about Robinson's record as High Commissioner, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor responded that she "has been an agent of change and a fighter for good." To be sure, Robinson has done some good, serving as an honorary president of Oxfam International in recognition of her human rights work in Rwanda and Somalia, and she is the founder of the Council of World Women Leaders. But whatever her accomplishments as a human rights advocate, Robinson is undeserving of the honor.

The Durban conference was held between August 31 and September 7, 2001, yet the pernicious intent of those who would eventually take control of its agenda was clear a year before. In August 2000, Robinson refused to move the location of a preparatory meeting from Tehran when the Iranian government initially banned Israeli passport holders and representatives of Jewish non-governmental organizations from attending.

The Tehran meeting's "Declaration and Plan of Action" singled out Israel for rebuke: It "recall[ed] with deep regret the practices of racial discrimination against the Palestinians as well as other inhabitants of the Arab occupied territories," "express[ed] deep concern at the plight of Palestinian refugees," and criticized Israel with virulent rhetoric in numerous other clauses. Though there was no discussion of the discriminatory practices of any other country in the region, late Democratic congressman Tom Lantos--who attended the conference--noted that Robinson congratulated delegates for reaching "consensus." According to Lantos, when Robinson was asked about the anti-Israel language by a reporter, she stated, "The situation in the Palestinian occupied territories was brought up at the meeting and it is reflected in the final declaration," in effect giving a green light to the forces who would arrive in Durban and turn what was, at least in theory, a noble cause into a hotbed of anti-Semitism.

In the wake of the Tehran meeting, the United States government made it clear that it would take no part in a process that singled out Israel. According to Lantos, despite last-ditch efforts at an emergency meeting held in Geneva weeks before the final summit, the OIC resisted attempts to remove controversial language (like use of the word "holocausts" as opposed to "Holocaust"). In the words of a State Department spokesman, Robinson "failed" to take American concerns into account.

Once the conference in Durban began, the Norwegian delegation, trying to avert a meltdown of the entire international effort, drafted new language for the final declaration; this language removed most of the anti-Israel rhetoric (which, according to news reports, Robinson played a role in excising) but still singled out the Arab-Israeli conflict among all the conflicts in the world for concern. American negotiators in Durban refused to accept the new wording; in the words of Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and human rights champion, it would have been an "enormous concession for the U.S. to accept even a generic discussion of the situation in the Middle East since no other political dispute was mentioned in the text." Nevertheless, according to Lantos, Robinson labeled the decision "warped, strange and undemocratic." Meanwhile, the conference devolved into an anti-Semitic spectacle, with street demonstrators donning posters comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. To her credit, Robinson did take an Arab NGO to task for distributing Nazi-style hate literature, lifting up the offensive cartoons and declaring "I am a Jew."

But that one instance of moral clarity does not outweigh her behavior throughout the entire Durban process. "To many of us present at the events at Durban," wrote Lantos, "it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who, in her role as secretary-general of the conference, failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track." Lantos served as the U.S. delegate to Durban but walked out in protest. "Her yearning to have a 'dialogue among civilizations' blinded her to the reality that the noble goals of her conference had been usurped by some of the world's least tolerant and most repressive states, wielding human rights claims as a weapon in a political dispute."

It is not just Robinson's record at Durban that renders her unfit for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Throughout her tenure as High Commissioner, she frequently criticized the United States for its operation of the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and terrorist detainee policies--warning that we were "losing the moral high ground"--but rarely lifted a finger when it came to serial abusers of human rights like the People's Republic of China, Libya, or Sudan. As a result of the problems in Durban and her baleful term as High Commissioner, the United States did not support Robinson's continuing as head of the office: After she was replaced in 2002, former American ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke said that "she overly politicized the job." (Indeed, the Human Rights Commission became such an international joke under Robinson's tenure--with all manner of human rights abusers allowed onto the body--that it was eventually abolished in 2006.) At the time of her replacement, Robinson lashed out at the United States by blaming it for her downfall, which makes the decision of the current American administration to honor her all the more perplexing.

Opposition to Robinson's inclusion in the group to be honored at the White House next week is slowly gaining ground on Capitol Hill. "I think naming her is a mistake," says Elliot Engel, a Democratic congressman from New York. "I respectfully request that the President of the United States reassess the awarding of this prestigious medal to a woman with such a blatant record of inappropriate and inexplicable bias against America's most reliable ally," echoed Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas. Their Republican colleague Peter King, the most prominent Irish-American lawmaker in the House, has kind words for Robinson personally, calling her "nice" and "intelligent." But in my conversation with him last week, King lashed out at Robinson for what he terms her "moral equivalency view of the world," in which democratic nations like the United States and Israel are singled out for unfair and disproportionate criticism. He too opposes the selection, as does Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

According to Tevi Troy of the Hudson Institute, a White House source now claims that Robinson was "not fully vetted." That's hard to believe. "Her record is so blatant that anyone doing a Google search would find it," one prominent Jewish leader told me. Two alternate scenarios are more likely true: Either the White House doesn't believe that the arguments against Robinson have any merit, or it doesn't think that they overshadow the objectively good work she has done for humanitarian causes. But even by that latter measure, Robinson's record is unremarkable. If the White House is to award individuals for work in the field of human rights, why not bestow honors upon people who risk their lives in dangerous environments, rather than career bureaucrats who focus lopsided attention on the alleged crimes of western democracies?

Robinson has responded to criticism with accusations of censorship and persecution. She recently told an Irish newspaper that "there's a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community." This from a woman who repeatedly sided with the mass of Muslim dictatorships against the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. The president should swallow his pride, reassess this ill-considered decision, and retract the award.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/politics/failure-leadership-0