The unexpected, decisive rejection of the Trump administration’s candidate to head the premier United Nations agency for resettling refugees and other migrants appears to be a warning. Which is that other nations are not prepared to indefinitely defer to the power of the United States when human rights and democratic values are assaulted by the White House.
Ken Isaacs, the American candidate ousted in the first round of voting in Geneva, on June 29, for the next executive director of the International Organization for Migration, had good qualifications for the job, having worked for decades with refugees, most recently the Rohingya victims of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese military.
The winner of the vote was António Manuel de Carvalho Ferreira Vitorino, a Portuguese politician, lawyer and former European Union commissioner for justice and home affairs. (The secretary-general of the UN is also a former Portuguese politician, António Guterres.)
There were dark shadows in Isaacs’ story — remarks by him disparaging Muslims and a previous leadership position in a nonprofit evangelical Christian relief organization that had an avowed missionary intent in its work. In the end, some experts said, Trump’s vertiginous downward spiral in American human-rights and migration policies and practices may have sealed Isaacs’ fate.
Or did a dysfunctional and indifferent State Department fail to support him enough?
At the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in New York, Felice Gaer, the director, said the failure to secure the position for an American in a body dominated almost entirely by the US since the IOM’s founding in 1951 may be more complicated.
“To win a contested UN post, three or four things are needed: a candidate, credibility, and commitment by the nominating state,” Gaer said in an email interview with PassBlue. “It’s easy to say the vote was a referendum on the administration or the president. But it may simply be a failure to secure commitments [of support] from others. The US does not trade votes. (I’ll vote for you for IOM, if you vote for me for the UNHCR board or UNICEF, and so on.)
“It is possible that this loss was due to inadequate effort inside the already demoralized Department of State,” she said. “It’s possible it’s because the candidate was flawed. And it’s also possible the loss resulted from general dissatisfaction with the credibility of the current administration on these issues.
“That this comes on the heels of a first-ever defeat of a US candidate for the UN Human Rights Committee — a distinguished treaty body [not part of the Human Rights Council] — suggests something bigger is awry in terms of US diplomacy.
“The fact that the election was in Geneva — to which mission the Administration has not nominated nor sent an ambassador in 18 months — may also be a factor, suggesting a lack of US clout because of a lack of diplomacy,” Gaer said. “I think US policy of ‘leavership’ rather than leadership has tipped the balance both at home and abroad.”
In short order, the United States has left the UN Human Rights Council, sharply cut aid to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, introduced harsh restrictions on immigration and refused to join the new UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
Trump has insulted and threatened traditional US allies and imposed tariffs on many countries on a flimsy rationale of national security — an argument that Canada has most strenuously debunked. The Trump tariffs have even alienated India, perhaps the last major country to remain a loyal friend of the US. India has recently followed the Europeans and Canada by imposing retaliatory tariffs of its own against the US.
Numerous reports are circulating that Trump is thinking of quitting the World Trade Organization, a regulatory body and forum for settling disputes in which the US has been influential since its founding in 1995. It replaced the post-World War II General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known at GATT.
Adding to the record of dissociation, the administration is now shocking the world with its handling of asylum seekers from Central America, taking children from their desperate parents and scattering them across the US. Even some Republicans have described this action as “inhumane” or “evil.”
In the State Department, documents reflecting universal values of human rights are being scrubbed to fit the Trump agenda. On April 20, in the most recent annual global human-rights report to Congress, which legislators have required by law, the phrase “reproductive rights” for women has been excised and replaced by a section on “coercion.” That word fits nicely into the (long proven false) claim by anti-abortion activists that the UN Population Fund supports forced abortion in China. This claim has cost the Fund, which is the most extensive global provider of family planning, all of its official US financial support.
Also missing from the human-rights report — and the State Department’s vocabulary generally — is the phrase “occupied territories” to describe Israel’s control of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza as well as the Syrian Golan Heights.
On June 29, Michelle Kosinski, CNN’s senior diplomatic correspondent, reported an exclusive account of a development in the State Department that may disturb those who fear the growth of nationalism and populism in the US. Kosinski obtained internal administration documents dismissing and seeking changes in UN human-rights documents that condemn racism, nationalism and populism.
The State Department official, Andrew Veprek, deputy assistant secretary for refugees and migration, also took issue with the call for national leaders to condemn hate speech and xenophobia, according to Kosinski’s report.
As Kosinski reported, Veprek had written: “The drafters say ‘populism and nationalism’ as if these are dirty words. . . . There are millions of Americans who likely would describe themselves as adhering to these concepts. (Maybe even the President.) So are we looking to here condemn our fellow-citizens, those who pay our salaries?”
The US is by far the largest funder of the UN and most (but not all) of its programs, based on dues and assessments calibrated to reflect America’s status as the strongest global economy, at least for now. This clout has made many people in the UN and governments’ diplomatic missions within it wary of openly criticizing American policies. Thus, the willingness of governments to defy the US in the International Organization for Migration seems heartening to some diplomats, especially from developing countries that rely on UN support in many areas.
Anwarul Chowdhury is a former ambassador of Bangladesh to the UN; he was an ambassador to several Latin American countries as well and later became the high representative for least developed, landlocked and small island developing nations. He said in an interview with PassBlue that too many countries live in fear of seeing the UN weakened because of reduced American funding: apparently a current strategy of the Trump administration.
“I always say that this fear of the withholding of US contributions should not make us inactive,” he said. “The UN has its credibility and moral authority. This fear of cash makes almost every secretary-general sort of kowtow to the US position in so many ways. Their ambassadors here do not have the authority or mandate to speak out if a US policy is harming the United Nations itself. I believe politics takes over. Whenever I speak out now — and I can speak publicly now — there is silence around me.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.