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America's Double Standard

Sen. Jesse Helms has complained that a representative of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR) recently was allowed to make a fact-finding visit to the US to examine the use of the death sentence in American courts.

The senator views the visit as a gross example of UN "malfeasance and incompetence," illustrating why the UN is allegedly looked upon with "such disdain" by the American people.

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These views raise serious questions about this country's adherence to international law.

The issue isn't the merits of the death penalty, nor statements critical of the quality of justice in death penalty cases attributed to the UN visitor. Many Americans, I suspect, have similar questions. The issue is whether the US is prepared to hold itself to the same international measures of review and cooperation - be it in the field of human rights or other areas of multilateral cooperation - it expects from others.

In the case of human rights, the US inspired many of the standards that today are held as international law. We apply these standards rigorously, sometimes at the expense of other dimensions of our bilateral relations with nations. Why, then, should we balk when an international body seeks to examine our own practices? Are we above the law? Is our sovereignty so fragile that it can't bear the weight of what we ask of others?

Having served the US as a foreign service officer for nearly 30 years, including three stints as ambassador, I often dealt with claims of double standards made by those who were stung by our criticism of their human rights record. In good conscience, I defended the integrity of our policy, both as universal and as one grounded in the rule of law. Now I must ask: How many despots will hide behind our own foot-dragging to avoid international scrutiny and accountability?

America risks tossing all to the winds under the onslaught of unilateralists in Congress who, all too often, hold the administration hostage with all-or-nothing demands on so many international issues. This kind of thinking smacks more of 19th-century gunboat diplomacy than the give-and-take required today.

The UNCHR visit to the US is but one example of the kind of reaction by some members of Congress that serves to undercut institutions like the UN, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. This isn't to say we should adopt a supine posture in these bodies, putting mealy mouthed consensus ahead of substance. To the contrary, rational assessments of our long-term interests and a sense of perspective about our role in the community of nations should guide our actions.

Of all states, we benefit the most from the Rule of Law and its treaty-based body of international standards and norms. That's because we have the largest interest at stake overseas. As the world's most active international lender, investor, and trader, our economy reaps the benefits of economic growth, employment, and revenue from the stability that is built on the legitimacy of voluntary international cooperation. But double standards, deadbeat debt practices, in-your-face diplomacy, take-it-or-leave-it conditionality, and absenteeism from major international conventions threaten to undermine the very foundation we've built over the past half century. It's a foundation that has served us well, but one that could crumble if we don't practice what we preach.

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Senator Helms's concern about alleged American disdain for the UN is misdirected. If his thinking prevails, in time there likely will be global disdain for the US.

* Alvin P. Adams Jr. is president and chief executive officer of the United Nations Association of the USA.

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