Legacy of US president Wilson's racism clouds UN rights office

GENEVA: How do you condemn racism on behalf of the global community while sitting in a building named after a racist?

Some would argue it’s a challenge the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) needs to face up to.

The UN rights office is housed in a 225-room mansion built in the mid-1870s on the shores of Lake Geneva which, since 1924, has been named the Palais Wilson, honouring the former United States president, Woodrow Wilson.

A century after Wilson negotiated a peace deal to end World War One and set up the League of Nations – which was based in Geneva and helped establish the Swiss city as a diplomatic centre – his record on human rights, and particularly race, has met fresh scrutiny.

That revision had been concentrated at Princeton University – where Wilson was also president – but it has not yet extended to Geneva, a place sometimes referred to as the capital of human rights.

While Wilson’s legacy and Geneva’s identity as the home of major international bodies are inextricably linked, some have suggested that it may be worth rethinking his connection to the UN’s rights office, given his woeful actions regarding black Americans.

“Wilson was a racist. I think there is no doubt about that”, acclaimed Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan told AFP.

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“The fact that (the Palais Wilson) houses the rights office… that I do think is unfortunate. That is one of those accidents of history.”

At Princeton, a black student group in 2015 raised concerns about the university’s prestigious school of international affairs bearing the president’s name.

Princeton established a committee that studied submissions from historians, including evidence that Wilson was in fact a reactionary when it came to equality for blacks, adopting policies that intensified segregation in the federal government while staffing his cabinet with white supremacists.

“We cannot simply excuse Wilson’s racist politicking as a feature of him being ‘a man of his time’,” Johns Hopkins University historian NDB Connolly wrote in a letter to the committee.

Paula J Giddings, a historian at Smith College, said that due to Wilson’s actions, racial separation was “inscribed onto the very centre of the nation”.

The panel ultimately decided to leave Wilson’s name on its institutions but called for “transparency in recognising Wilson’s failings and shortcomings”.

Wilson is widely commemorated, notably on the Avenue President Wilson in central Paris. And next to the Palais Wilson in Geneva is the deluxe President Wilson Hotel.

But his connection to the UN rights office poses specific complications, as much of OHCHR’s mandate involves defending the rights of racial and ethnic minorities.

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MacMillan said that some recognition of Wilson’s achievements in forging the multilateral system was important in Geneva, but suggested a body like the UN’s Conference on Disarmament, where the Wilson legacy remains positive, would be more appropriate.

In an interview with AFP last month, UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said he has “always favoured a deeper understanding of historical narratives” and would welcome a broader discussion about Wilson’s link to the rights office headquarters.

“Clearly president Wilson is a man with many parts,” Zeid said. “Were it not for him, it is unlikely there would have been a League of Nations and the UN to follow,” he added.

“And yes, the attitudes on racism were reprehensible, certainly seen in today’s light, but maybe not just limited to today. At the time as well.”

He added that input from Wilson experts could “provide the right approach as to how and whether there should be any recognition or not.”

Zeid also stressed that the Palais Wilson was named by Swiss authorities and the building still belongs to the canton of Geneva, so an official name change, however unlikely, would not be the UN’s decision.

But the rights office could advocate for a compromise similar to that pursued at Princeton, where historic buildings or institutions retain their names alongside a public acknowledgement – such as a plaque – outlining Wilson’s undeniable prejudices.

For the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, transparency within the Palais Wilson about the late president’s faults is important.

“I think the most effective way of dealing with this is to be clear about the negative sides of Wilson’s history, to be explicit and public about the more problematic racial sides of what he did, but not to deny the fact that he played an important role in the League of Nations,” Roth said.

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