The Un-Gerry


During Geraldine Ferraro’s 1994-­1996 stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, she was one of the few delegates to oppose a host of popular initiatives championed by African and other nonwhite nations. There are also indications–contrary to claims she is making in her campaign for the U.S. Senate–that Ferraro resisted efforts to condemn anti-Semitism in a historic UN resolution.

Her opposition to a ban on the international export of hazardous wastes, the calling of a world conference on racism, affirmative action in the staffing of the Centre for Human Rights, and the inclusion of a national “right to development” in the UN pantheon of rights put her at odds with the overwhelming majority of the 53 nations that make up the commission at Geneva. Were her positions widely known now, they might also put her at odds with black, Latin, Asian, Jewish, and other liberal voters in the September 15 primary. Mark Green, who is also running in the primary, told the Voice he would have backed the UN resolutions; Ferraro’s other challenger, Chuck Schumer, did not respond to inquiries.

While Ferraro was hardly free to make U.S. policy on these issues, she did play a role in shaping it, and in some instances her stance differed from her Clinton-connected predecessor’s or successor’s. In a written response to Voice questions, her press office insisted that her UN positions were “the administration’s point of view, not always her own.” She has, however, often cited actions she took as ambassador that could help her with New York voters, such as her insistence in campaign literature that she successfully “fought against singling out Israel for unfair criticism at the UN.” If she takes credit for Clinton policies supported by most local voters, she can expect blame when they are not.

Her reported reluctance to back the anti-Semitism amendment is drawn largely from an account by New York Post columnist Ed Koch, who accused her in March 1994 of “weeks of disinterest” on the issue. “She only pushed after receiving a telephone call from Washington reading her the riot act,” Koch wrote. Edgar Bronfman of the World Jewish Congress and Morris Abram of UN Watch pressed her to include anti-Semitism among the forms of racism listed. But, according to Koch, “she declined, indicating she was more concerned with women’s issues and supporting a positive message on the Israel/PLO peace process.”

Koch noted that Turkey “moved to save the situation by proposing” the amendment, and that the State Department–“which had been deluged with complaints”–instructed Ferraro to push it.

UN minutes indicate that Ferraro, who Koch says was “outraged

that the Jewish community had brought her inaction to the State Department’s attention,” did add a second reference to anti-Semitism to the Turkish resolution. But the minutes disclose no U.S. role in the placement of anti-Semitism in the resolution’s preamble.

Nonetheless, Ferraro’s literature says that “under her leadership, the U.S. delegation successfully initiated the first resolution” on anti-Semitism, fulfilling the Koch prediction that Ferraro “will claim it as her victory.” Koch, who says he stands by his story, would “not attack her now on the issue” because she is a “supporter of Israel” but noted that “other people can.”

One Jewish leader appointed to the UN delegation by Ferraro, Howard Squadron, takes issue with the Koch version, insisting that she asked him “in the very beginning” to do a speech on the issue. Squadron, who has endorsed Ferraro, said there were “complaints to the State Department about supposed foot-dragging,” but it was “a bum rap on Gerry.” Though Squadron is very specific about approaches he made to get the resolution passed, he can’t point to a single Ferraro action.

Squadron attributes the passage of the amendment to the temporary “lovefest” that followed the September 1993 Rabin/Arafat handshake on the White House lawn. Nonetheless, Ferraro has not only laid claim to the anti-Semitism amendment, but to winning the “first positive resolution about the peace process,” even though the UN General Assembly passed its endorsement 155-3 months before the Human Rights Commission.

Ironically, one of the excuses Ferraro is said to have given Bronfman and Abram for not pushing the resolution on anti-Semitism–namely, that she was “more concerned with women’s issues”–also comes up in the context of a speech she delivered at the commission in 1996 against a third global conference on racism. Critics point out that she and Hillary Clinton headed the U.S. delegation to Beijing in 1995–amid great fanfare–for the Fourth World Conference on Women.

UN minutes indicate that Ferraro “did not support” a racism conference because of its estimated $2 million cost, adding that she did not favor any more UN gatherings until the recommendations of the far more costly women’s event were implemented. One Ferraro concern might’ve been that U.S. policies, particularly on immigration and the death penalty, were slated for conference review. This year, however, a black American delegate, Betty King, spoke positively about the conference, set now for 2001, saying the U.S. “planned to participate actively.”

Ferraro’s three-year, part-time UN post was her only public service since she left Congress at the end of 1984, and she frequently cites it as “foreign policy experience” that her opponents lack. She mentioned it in the third paragraph of her announcement speech in January, recalling “the ideals I fought for in that forum” and saying it taught her “what America at its best means to all the world.”

One “ideal” Ferraro fought for was the protection of U.S. exports of toxic wastes and products to developing countries. The issue came up at the 1995 and 1996 commission sessions, and Ferraro voted both times against resolutions to control or ban “illicit dumping.”

In 1996, she expressed agreement with the Italian delegate who argued that any commission action would duplicate the efforts of another UN body that was championing a ban (she didn’t mention that the U.S. opposed those efforts as well). All of the 16 nations that voted against the resolution except Japan were white; all of the 32 who supported it were nonwhite. Neither Ferraro nor any other opponent of the ban challenged a fact in the staff reports behind the resolution:

  • Scandals in Africa–“including the discovery of contracts between Western companies and African countries whereby the companies paid a pittance for land on which to dump toxic products”–led the Organization of African Unity to declare the trafficking “a crime against Africa and the African people.” Since the OAU acted, half of U.S. exports have been going to Latin America.
  • “The history of the international trade in dangerous wastes shows that they inevitably move toward areas with the least political and economic power to refuse them,” with the U.S., Germany, and two others acting as the “largest waste-exporting countries.” Three million tons of dangerous cargo–from lead batteries, plastics, and scrap to restricted pesticides–were “legally” shipped to developing countries between 1989 and 1993.News accounts have identified the worst U.S. examples: “massive shipments of mercury waste to South Africa,” furnace dust from steel mills to Mexico, fertilizer laden with lead and cadmium to Bangladesh, and an eventually voided $600 million contract with Guinea-Bissau to dump arsenic, a chemical weapon called phosgene, and lethal methyl isocyanate gases. Trade unions in India led protests this year against a U.S. Navy contract to transport vessels contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, and lead to Indian shorelines for demolition.

    Although Ferraro’s UN votes condoned these activities, her office told the Voice that she would support an export ban if elected to the Senate.

    Ferraro was just as indifferent to thisThird World bloc about charges that the human rights staff was overloaded with Westerners. In explaining her opposition to a resolution seeking the recruitment of personnel from nonwhite countries, Ferraro endorsed the comments of the Netherlands delegate that the staff “was already recruited” on an “equitable basis.” In fact, 53 percent of the staff was from developed countries, compared to 25 percent of the membership.

    Though 24 nonwhite nations were completely unrepresented and Iran was the only nonwhite country with as many as three staffers, the U.S. had seven, Italy five, France four, and Spain four. Ferraro’s office now says the resolution “required quotas,” though it refers exclusively to “geographic distribution” and sets no numerical goals.

    But it was Ferraro’s1994 reversal of the U.S. position on the right to development–a top UN priority for the Third World–that pitted her against both nonwhite and many Western nations. In explaining her reasons for rejecting a resolution backed by her Clinton-anointed predecessor, she railed against efforts to commit the UN to the right as “a diversion” and a waste of “scarce resources that could better be used to protect all human rights.” Only Japan and Britain joined her in voting against the resolution.

    In 1995, Ferraro again led the fight against recognition on this issue, which developing countries see as an attempt to get the West to understand that economic rights are as significant as civil liberties. She finally relented in 1996, when an “evaluation mechanism” overseeing implementation of the resolution was replaced with “voluntary progress reports” by individual countries.

    Ferraro still expressed “misgivings” about the resolution, blaming emerging countries for their own lack of development. “If governments are not prepared to provide the internal conditions needed for all human rights,” she said, “it should come as no surprise if the right to development continued to be unfulfilled.”

    Like so much else about Ferraro, her UN record has gone unexamined, partly as a result of a campaign of intimidation. She has silenced her opponents and the press by posing as a battered woman abused by what, without a shred of factual evidence in rebuttal, she calls”smears.” She is either on the way to her final or her finest moment–ducking debates, real issues, and even her own history–with a free pass from a muzzled media.

    With special reporting from Dan Steinberg

    Research: Anne Benjaminson and Nicole White