Saturday, March 14, 2009

Editorial: Response to Ambassador Oliver

Louise Oliver, the former U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO, has published a "commentary" in the Washington Times. For those of you who don't know, the paper (according to Wikipedia)
was founded in 1982 by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon. The Times is known for its conservative stance on political and social issues.
Ambassador Oliver was a political appointee of the Bush (43) administration, given the rank of ambassador. She is widely considered to have won the respect of the UNESCO Secretariat and of other diplomats representing their governments at UNESCO, and to have been an effective advocate for the issues on which she chose to focus. The Interpress Service reported in 2005:
Two years ago, Bush appointed the former head of an aggressive Republican fund-raising and lobby group, Louise Oliver, as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which had been boycotted by Washington for almost 20 years before.

Oliver had also been a founding director of the right-wing Independent Women's Forum along with Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney. Oliver's daughter, Anna Louise Oliver, was appointed special assistant to the State Department's PRM Bureau in 2001 primarily to work on population issues, particularly with respect to reproductive services and abortion.
I agree wholeheartedly with what I take to be Mrs. Olivers key points in the piece:
  • "This October, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) will elect a new director general to a six-year term. It is critical that the Obama administration focus its attention on that election."
  • "President Obama has stated his intention to promote multilateralism and the use of 'soft power' as the hallmarks of his foreign policy. What the administration does with regard to UNESCO - and when - will send a clear signal about the seriousness of his commitment to use international organizations to advance U.S. national interests and the global good."
On the other hand, I have some problems with the piece. Mrs. Oliver states:
When I arrived at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2004, I was the first U.S. ambassador to the organization in 20 years. Given UNESCO's name, I expected to find my new colleagues focused on schools, scientific research and the arts. Instead, they were busy developing three new "normative instruments." each of which would have important legal implications: a declaration on bioethics, and two treaties, known at UNESCO as "conventions," on anti-doping in sports and "cultural diversity."
There are a couple of thousand employees of UNESCO, many more people who participate in the international forums of UNESCO, and a large diplomatic community around UNESCO. All of these people might have been considered her colleagues. In my experience, the large majority of them are indeed focused on improving education, promoting science, and protecting culture. If as Ambassador, Mrs. Oliver missed that point it was probably because she chose to devote her time and effort to those three normative instruments.

Of course, it is not surprising that a diplomat focuses her attention on the negotiation of treaties; that is an important part of the job. What may be more surprising is that the Bush administration appointed someone to the UNESCO post who did not know the organization well before assuming her duties as the Permanent Delegate to that six-decade-old organization.

Mrs. Oliver states:
On the U.N. Security Council, the United States has a veto. At UNESCO, it does not. Effective U.S. diplomacy and strong personal relationships with the secretariat and representatives of UNESCO's 192 other member states are the only means the United States has to generate support for its ideas and policies, and to thwart the efforts of those who seek to harm U.S. interests.
The United States and the other great powers emerging victorious from World War II indeed created the Security Council's veto system to assure that they could block any U.N. action that threatened their security. UNESCO was created, with the United States taking a lead role, for the exchange of ideas -- an open forum. While diplomacy and personal relations count in a forum of ideas, another critically important means to winning debates is to have good ideas to promote and strong arguments with which to promote them. UNESCO was created to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men, and that is best done by reasoned discussion rather than force.

Mrs. Oliver states that she and her staff "successfully negotiated the Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights". The Declaration had been under negotiation prior to the U.S. reentry into UNESCO, and after reentry an American was added to the drafting committee. That person, an eldely physician with a distinguished history as a medical academic, was also known for his strong "right to life advocacy"; he served on the very controversial Presidential Committee on Bioethics.

Was it appropriate for UNESCO to consider bioethics and human rights? UNESCO's concern for human rights goes back to the request from the United Nations to investigate whether there were indeed rights that were so widely shared among cultures of the world as to be "universal". Similarly, it has always focused on ethics and indeed has been termed "the conscience of the United Nations system."

Was the negotiation successful? A declaration is the weakest of the international instruments, and the bioethics declaration might not affect country behavior much in any case. Still, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, negotiated under the guidance of Eleanor Roosevelt, has been hugely influential over the past six decades, and there may well have been useful things that a new declaration on bioethics could have done. In point of fact, the declaration was widely criticized by philosophers and human rights experts.

Mrs. Oliver seems concerned that other nations disagree with us about some aspects of human rights and use UNESCO as a forum to seek to convince the majority of nations of the superiority of their beliefs. The very purpose of UNESCO was to allow peaceful discussions of issues so important that if unresolved they might lead to war.

The debate on the abolition of slavery was conducted over many years before the right to freedom from involuntary servitude was acknowledged by the community of nations, So too, there has been a debate in the last couple of years over the use of torture on prisoners for which the majority of Americans appear to disagree with the position of the Bush administration. People do go to war over such issues!

There is another UNESCO decision before the Obama administration -- the appointment of a new U.S. Permanent Representative to UNESCO. I hope that the administration will find a skilled diplomat, devoted to advancing education, science and culture, who will be an effective advocates for the best of American ideals, and who will fully understand the UNESCO milieu in which that advocacy is to take place. I would also hope that the new representative emphasizes efforts to make UNESCO more efficient and effective in improving education, promoting science and protecting culture globally.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.)

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