US Must Accept Its Foreign Obligations

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Two recent intrusions by world organizations into America's domestic affairs raise serious questions regarding United States international obligations.

A report authorized by the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has accused the US of unfair, arbitrary, and racist use of the death penalty. The report - prepared by a Senegalese, Bacre Waly Ndiaye - was preliminary to a vote of the commission calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty; the US opposed the moratorium, along with China, Congo, and the Sudan.

On April 14, Paraguayan citizen Angel Francisco Breard, was executed in Virginia despite interventions by the International Court of Justice. The Court's appeal pointed out that the Commonwealth of Virginia had not, as international law requires, notified Paraguayan consular authorities of Breard's arrest. The requirement notification, codified in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, is a universally recognized obligation.

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Americans, perhaps because of their colonial heritage, have never been friendly to external interventions in their affairs. The problem is exacerbated today by negative attitudes toward the UN. Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attacked the UNHRC report as a "UN charade" and urged the State Department to refuse to cooperate with any investigation. His views are probably shared by many others in the Congress.

Congressional resentment of the UN is at a peak. The debate over whether the US should pay back-dues to the UN, combined with criticism of Secretary General Kofi Annan's efforts in Baghdad, have demonstrated the deep antagonism toward the UN in the US legislature.

Many in the US speak of the UN as if it were another sovereign body threatening America. It is not. It is an international body to which the US belongs and in which the US has a strong measure of control through a veto in the Security Council. Membership in the international community also carries obligations.

The problem would not be as serious if the question related solely to intervention by multinational organizations in US affairs. The US itself intervenes in the affairs of other nations and looks to other nations to abide by international law where US citizens are concerned. The State Department's annual human rights reports delve deeply into the internal affairs of other nations. Their sovereignty has been severely challenged by such reports.

Many Americans take the view that US society is above reproach and therefore qualified to press others to change their ways. Further, some of the resentment of reports such as that by Mr. Ndiaye arises from a belief that the practices of many of the nations on the Commission are far more to be condemned than anything in the US: "They have no business telling us what to do." Yet the "pot calling the kettle black" response only arouses more resentment.

But a more fundamental issue is present in both incidents - the access of US diplomats to officials in other countries. What is noticeable in the press report of Ndiaye's mission is that access was refused to him by senior officials at both the federal and state level. At a time when the US, in pursuing its goals of democracy and market forces in the global marketplace, is seeking access for its own representatives at significant levels in other nations, it is not helpful to the achievement of broader US objectives to refuse to see someone operating under the UN flag. Such refusals aren't forgotten when US diplomats seek entree to foreign office officials in other nations. Whenever US citizens are arrested abroad, US officials demand access under the Vienna Convention, the provisions of which were so lightly dismissed in the Breard case by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III.

International obligations are a two-way street. If the US is not prepared to have others look at its society, its basis for looking at others is seriously weakened. If the US will not accept its obligations to the citizens of other lands, its own citizens will be less safe abroad. Washington cannot justify making foreign relations a one-way street.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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