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5 Heroic Acts to Uphold the Ideals of American Pluralism in the Face of anti-Muslim Bigotry

A plan to build an Islamic center on downtown New York City has brought out the worst in some of our elected officials here in the United States.  TPM gives a good rundown of the patently bigoted and racist statements made by public officials in the United States, from Sarah Palin’s admonition that Muslims “refudiate” the mosque to Newt Gingrich’s ultimatum that, “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.”

Sadly, there are a trove of these sorts of examples. But even as we witness the depravities of racism and bigotry practiced by influential public officials in the United States, it is important to keep in mind that a number of public officials have put themselves on the line to defend the American ideal of religious pluralism and tolerance.

Here are five heroic acts in service of American pluralism.  

1) Colin Powell on Meet the Press in October 2008 in which he responds to the smear and whisper campaign suggesting Obama is a Muslim. “So what if he was?”, says Powell.

2) FBI Director Robert Muller is frequently out front defending the American Muslim community that it is somehow a fifth column.  Here is he in response to a question by Congressman Keith Ellison at the House Judiciary Committee on April 23, 2008.

“And every opportunity I have, I re-affirm the fact that 99.9 percent of Muslim-Americans or Sikh-Americans, Arab-Americans are every bit as patriotic as anybody else in this room, and that many of our cases are a result of the cooperation from the Muslim community in the United States.”

3) Pentagon Boots Franklin Graham from National Prayer Day Activities. Graham, a prominant christian evangelist has called Islam an evil religion. In May 2008, the Pentagon recinded an invitation to Graham to participate in a Prayer Day at the Pentagon. This is how they justified that decision:

“We’re an all-inclusive military,” [Pentagon Spokesperson] Collins said. “We honor all faiths. … Our message to our service and civilian work force is about the need for diversity and appreciation of all faiths.” 

4) Manhattan Borough President Steve Stringer defends Islamic center because “we are Americans first.”

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5) George W. Bush, immediately after the September 11 attacks. President Bush went to great lengths to differentiate Islam from the 9-11 terrorists.   Bush was a controversial president for a host of reasons, but this statement in a September 21, 2001 speech to Congress, helped set the tone for how other elected officials described the role of Islam in the 9-11 attacks.  

I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.

Know of other examples? Send them to UNDispatch-at-gmail dot com

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GA Endorses New Oversight Chief, Ban To Japan for 60th Anniversery of Atomic Bombings, Helen Clark to meet Lula

USG OIOS: today the GA endorsed the SG’s appointment of Carman Lapointe-Young (Canada) as USG of OIOS.  Though approved without a vote, Egypt and Cuba expressed their disappointment that the selection was not from a developing country.  Ambassador Rice’s statement on her nomination is available here.  Ms. Lapointe-Young will begin her 5-year non-renewable term September 13, which will run through September 12, 2015.  She is currently the director of the Office of Audit and Oversight at IFAD in Rome and formerly Auditor General at the World Bank (2004-2009).

SG Travels: the SG is off to Japan next week to attend the Peace Memorial Ceremony in Hiroshima (becoming the first SG to do so) and visit Nagasaki, hoping his visit will attract attention on the need to achieve nuclear disarmament.

UNDP/Clark: today Clark begins a 2-day visit to Brazil, where she will meet President Lula and sign a strategic partnership framework between UNDP and the Brazilian Government regarding South-South Cooperation initiatives and action for MDG achievement.

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Why The United States Did Not Support “Water as a Human Right” Resolution

The General Assembly today voted for a resolution that declares that access to water and clean sanitation to be a human right.  From the UN News Center:

Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights, the General Assembly declared today, voicing deep concern that almost 900 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water.

The 192-member Assembly also called on United Nations Member States and international organizations to offer funding, technology and other resources to help poorer countries scale up their efforts to provide clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for everyone.

The Assembly resolution received 122 votes in favour and zero votes against, while 41 countries abstained from voting.

That does not sound all that controversial. But apparently, it is.  One of those 41 abstentions was the United States, which said it could not support the resolution because, in fact, access to water is not an internationally recognized human right.  (At least not yet.)  In an explanation of the United States vote, John F. Sammis, U.S. Minister Counselor to the Economic and Social Council, argued that “This resolution describes a right to water and sanitation in a way that is not reflective of existing international law; as there is no “right to water and sanitation” in an international legal sense as described by this resolution.”

Notwithstanding the merits of this particular resolution, this kind of back and forth is reflects a very natural tension between the General Assembly and the United States. The General Assembly is not a legislative body–the only part of the UN system that can “make law” is the Security Council.  But sometimes, the General Assembly pushes the boundaries, and this causes a reflexive retrenchment by big powers like the United States. 

Here is the full explanation of vote by Sammis. As you can see, the USA’s big objection here is over process, not necessarily substance of the resolution. 

Explanation of Vote by John F. Sammis, U.S. Minister Counselor to the Economic and Social Council, on Resolution A/64/L.63/Rev.1, the Human Right to Water, July 28, 2010

Mr. President,

The United States is deeply committed to finding solutions to our world’s water challenges. We support the goal of universal access to safe drinking water. Water and sanitation issues will be an important focus at this September’s Millennium Development Goal Summit. The United States is committed to working with our development partners to build on the progress they have already made in these areas as part of their national development strategies.

Water is essential for all life on earth. Accordingly, safe and accessible water supplies further the realization of certain human rights, and there are human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The United States supports the work of the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. In fact, we co-sponsored the resolution on Human Rights and Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation last September at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. We look forward to receiving the next report of the Independent Expert. We also look forward to a more inclusive, considered, and deliberative approach to these vital issues in Geneva than we have unfortunately experienced on this resolution in New York.

And I would just add to my prepared remarks that these concerns are not alleviated by the fact that just this morning, we have seen an amendment made to what the lead sponsor viewed as the core operative paragraph of the resolution from the floor. This again is an imposition on all of us. We haven’t had sufficient time to really consider the implications of this, and I think that it would have been far better, under the circumstances, not to bring this resolution forward for action today.

The United States had hoped to negotiate and ultimately join consensus on this text, on a text, that would uphold and support the international process underway at the Human Rights Council.

Instead, we have here a resolution that falls far short of enjoying the unanimous support of member States and may even undermine the work underway in Geneva. This resolution describes a right to water and sanitation in a way that is not reflective of existing international law; as there is no “right to water and sanitation” in an international legal sense as described by this resolution.

The United States regrets that this resolution diverts us from the serious international efforts underway to promote greater coordination and cooperation on water and sanitation issues. This resolution attempts to take a short-cut around the serious work of formulating, articulating and upholding universal rights. It was not drafted in a transparent, inclusive manner, and the legal implications of a declared right to water have not yet been carefully and fully considered in this body or in Geneva.

For these reasons, the United States has called for a vote and will abstain on this resolution.



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Funds for Iraq Humanitarian Assistance Slow to a Trickle

We came. We saw. We Conquered. We took our Money With Us.

The NGO Coordinating Committee for Iraq released a report showing a precipitous drop of funding for humanitarian assistance to Iraq.  According to the report, this threatens the future of UN agencies and NGOs that cater to Iraqis humanitarian needs.   The report draws a connection between the drawdown of American military presence in Iraq and the sharp decrease in American support for the humanitarian sector. As American troops leave, American dollars for things like refugee assistance and food aid for Iraqis are becoming more and more scarce.

As the US draws down its troops and supplies, which should culminate in a total withdrawal by 2012, funds for humanitarian relief operations in Iraq are dwindling at an alarming rate. US funding generally comprised 30-56% of total funding for humanitarian activity post-2003 invasion. However, the US is currently diverting its focus from Iraq towards the war in Afghanistan, as well as relief from natural disasters in countries like Haiti and Chile. Halfway through 2010, the US has only contributed $7.2 million to the [Iraq Humanitarian Action Plan] and other humanitarian assistance programs in Iraq; this comprises approximately 8% of the total funding collected so far in 2010. Furthermore, this total is $217.2 million less than US donor contributions in 2009.

Back in 2003, the most powerful country in the world decided it would lead a coalition to invade and occupy Iraq.  You can debate the merits of that decision all you want, but as a consequence, a civil war erupted that  displaced about 3 million people. These refugees and IDPs still depend humanitarian assistance to fulfill their basic human needs.  It seems to me that the United States has a special moral obligation to provide adequate levels of humanitarian assistance until such a time when the Iraqi government is fully capable of providing for its citizens. That time is not now.  


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“The Hitler Argument” Against the MDGs

Does progress on the Millennium Development Goals enhance American national security interests?  The Obama administration apparently thinks so.  They even included the MDGs and other development themes in their recent National Security Strategy:

The freedom that America stands for includes freedom from want. Basic human rights cannot thrive in places where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine they need to survive. The United States has embraced the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and is working with others in pursuit of the eradication of extreme poverty—efforts that are particularly critical to the future of nations and peoples of Africa.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight apparently disagrees with this premise.  At a subcommittee hearing on the MDGs that I attended this morning he railed against the very idea that security threats could emanate from poor countries.  After, all, he said, “Adolf Hitler came from a developed country!” 

Touche, Congressman. Touche. 



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John Kerry, the Afghan War Bellwether, Part 2

Continuing my parsing of John Kerry’s pronouncements on Afghanistan, note these remarks Senator Kerry delivered at the opening of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Afghanistan this afternoon:

I also want to emphasize that the events covered in these documents occurred before last December, when the President announced a new Afghanistan strategy clearly designed to address some of the very issues that are raised by these documents. Obviously in many cases, many of us have raised the issues in these documents with the Pakistanis and with the Afghans. And I’ll say a word more about that in a moment.

All of us, however, are concerned that after nearly nine years of war, more than 1,000 American casualties, and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, the Taliban appear to be as strong as they have been. And to successfully reverse that trend, it is going to be very important for us to depend on our partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So far, the progressive wing of the Democratic party has stayed fairly loyal to President Obama’s war plan in Afghanistan.    “Opposing” the war remains a relatively controversial position, even among fairly liberal elected Democrats like Kerry.  This statement, though, sounds alot like Kerry is judging Obama’s year old Afghan war strategy to be a failure.  If an establishment type like Kerry breaks with Obama I imagine he would take a bunch of people with him. 

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