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Nigerian News » Politics


Legacy of President Wilson’s racism clouds UN rights office

Posted 1 wk, 1 day ago
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 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.

“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 N.D.B 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.

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.

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