Obama’s U.N. State of Mind
The ideology that is shaping U.S. national-security policy


Anne Bayefsky

In September 2006, the General Assembly adopted its anti-terrorism roadmap — the “global counter-terrorism strategy.” The very first part of the report worries about the poor terrorist. It is called “Measures to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism,” and it lists items such as “poverty, and socio-economic marginalization” as well as “youth unemployment.” U.N. members promise to “reduce marginalization and the subsequent sense of victimization that propels extremism and the recruitment of terrorists.” U.N. members could not agree on who was a victim of terrorism, but they could agree that alleged terrorists are victims.

The U.S.-U.N. two-step began on day three of the Obama administration. On Jan. 22, 2009, as a U.N. press release announced, “U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay welcomed Thursday’s decision by the new U.S. administration to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.” Pillay declared that “those suspected of crimes are entitled to an expeditious and fair trial before the regular courts.” On June 24, 2009, she continued: “There is still much to do before the Guantanamo chapter is truly brought to a close. Its remaining inmates must either be tried before a court of law like any other suspected criminal or set free.” On Aug. 25, 2009, after Attorney General Eric Holder tapped a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogation practices at Guantanamo and elsewhere, Pillay said, “I warmly welcome this responsible decision by the U.S. government to open a preliminary investigation.”

With Obama in the White House, U.N. agents are doing more than directing traffic from the diplomatic lounge at Turtle Bay. On Feb. 24, 2009, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, had “several meetings” with State Department officials and some members of Congress “to discuss the latest developments relating to the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities.” Nowak told the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 10, 2009: “I am happy to say that, whereas the previous United States administration . . . made only half-hearted efforts to follow our recommendations . . . the new administration has markedly changed the policy. . . . When I recently informally met with representatives of the administration in Washington, they reassured me that all the 241 detainees remaining in the Guantanamo facilities would be subjected to a review aimed at either bringing them to justice before criminal courts in the United States, voluntarily repatriating them to their countries of origin, or resettling them in third countries.”

Lo and behold, on March 13, 2009, the Justice Department announced a new policy on dealing with terrorists that would “not employ the phrase ‘enemy combatant.’”

At the same time, Obama policymakers have been selected for their positions precisely because of a shared credo with U.N. officials. State Department legal adviser Harold Koh testified against confirming Alberto Gonzales as attorney general back in 2005. During his testimony, Koh spoke disparagingly about “so-called ‘enemy combatants’” and told the senators that al-Qaeda members “are not POWs, and they should then be treated as common criminals and prosecuted.”

The Obama administration’s hand-in-glove approach with the U.N. on handling terrorism did not materialize 50 minutes after Abdulmutallab started talking. It runs deep.

– Anne Bayefsky is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and executive director of Human Rights Voices.