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POLITICS: The U.S. Is Back in Geneva

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Feb 19 2009 (IPS) - United States diplomats are back in force at the U.N., after having distanced themselves from the world body for several years. This week they contributed to successful mediation between Georgia and Russia, although they did not help resolve a stalemate on gay rights.

The United States played an active role this week in multilateral initiatives to broker peace in the Caucasus and in debates on racism, xenophobia and related intolerance, both sponsored by the United Nations.

The United States began to disengage from Geneva-based U.N. activities in November 2001, only weeks after the terrorist attacks on targets in New York and Washington.

The catalyst was a speech given to a working group on the U.N. Biological Weapons Convention by then Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, regarded as a "hawk" in the government of former U.S. President George W. Bush (2001-2009).

The working group was debating mechanisms for identifying violators of the Convention, and the U.S. opposed inspections of its military facilities on the grounds of national security. Bolton was instrumental in derailing the working group, which did not meet at all for one year.

After that, U.S. participation in most of the multilateral bodies in Geneva fell off drastically, except in those of economic or commercial interest.

On Wednesday IPS asked Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Daniel Fried, if "the United States is back" at the U.N., to which he replied: "I wouldn't exactly put it that way. I don't think the United States ever left."

Fried, a high-profile negotiator in mediation sessions between Russia and Georgia, which concluded here on Wednesday, said that Vice President Joe Biden "made it clear that we plan to build a stronger and more dynamic trans-Atlantic relationship," in a Feb. 7 speech in Munich, Germany.

The diplomat said stronger links would be based on "the desire of the United States to consult our allies, and also on the hope and expectation that our allies will want to work with us."

Biden's clear message in Munich is consistent with U.S. President Barack Obama's statements throughout his electoral campaign, Fried said.

Fried took part in the latest round of peace negotiations between Russians and Georgians, co-sponsored by the U.N., the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Russia and Georgia went to war with each other in August 2008, an act that sparked tension in the region and displaced thousands of people from their homes. Two autonomous regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, split off from Georgia, and were promptly recognised as independent states by Moscow.

EU special representative Pierre Morel said the parties had reached consensus on "proposals for joint incident prevention and response mechanisms."

All three mediators hailed the accord as a significant first breakthrough. "We think this is an important step to security and stability" in the region, said Morel.

Fried said the "positive and practical" agreement had been reached in spite of the fundamental differences "on the ground" between both sides with respect to the breakaway regions' political status. Georgia and most of the U.N. member countries have not recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The U.S. diplomat said he regretted that talks on the situation of internally displaced people and humanitarian issues had failed to make headway. However, he emphasised that an agreement has been reached to allow natural gas distribution to all parts of the region, and that discussions on reconnecting water supplies have begun.

The parties to the negotiations, including representatives of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, will meet again in Geneva in two months' time at a date to be decided.

The U.S. has also returned to the U.N. working group that is preparing a draft outcome declaration for the Durban Review Conference, to be held in Geneva from Apr. 20 to 24.

The Review Conference will assess the fulfilment of agreements adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa.

The Israeli and U.S. delegations walked out of the 2001 conference against racism in Durban, in protest at what they said was the singling out of Israel "for censure and abuse."

In the years that followed, the U.S. progressively withdrew from U.N. human rights diplomacy. Its delegations to these U.N. sessions have been downsized, and only low-ranking representatives have been sent, many of whom have not even taken their seats nor participated in the debates.

The arrival of the U.S. delegation, headed by Mark Storella, Chargé d'Affaires of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, may herald an about-face on the part of the U.S. administration.

"We are here to explore with you whether it is possible to move beyond our differences and focus the Durban Review Conference on the racism and xenophobia that seriously persist today in our world," Storella said at the opening of the working group's deliberations.

"We will work with you this week in the hopes that this process will move in a positive direction that would allow the United States to participate in future preparatory meetings and, if possible, in the Durban Review Conference in April," he said.

"You are all aware of the strong reservations the United States has about this (outcome) document as it singles out Israel for criticism, places unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression, under the guise of 'defaming religion', and calls for payment of reparations for slavery," he said.

The working group discussions ground to a halt on Wednesday as disagreement erupted over discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. One paragraph of the draft outcome document condemns "all forms of discrimination and all other human rights violations based on sexual orientation."

This paragraph was proposed by the Czech Republic, representing the EU, and was supported by the United States, New Zealand, Chile (speaking on behalf of the South American countries), the Netherlands, Colombia and Argentina.

But a large number of countries opposed to recognising gay rights rejected the text.

South Africa, on behalf of the African Group, said the issue of sexual orientation is beyond the scope of the declaration adopted in 2001 in Durban.

Opposition to the paragraph proposed by the Czechs came mainly from the Islamic countries, and also from China.

A representative from the Vatican, which has observer status at the United Nations, added his voice to those of the critics and maintained that "sexual orientation" is only a form of behaviour, rather than an integral part of a person's psyche.

Another aspect that has divided the working group is the proposal to add a separate paragraph condemning "Islamophobia." To cite persecution of Islam without acknowledging similar abuses committed against other religions would be wrong, a Czech diplomat said.

The U.S. delegate said that his country has serious concerns about this section of the draft outcome document.

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