Legacy of president Wilson’s racism clouds UN rights office
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.
“The fact that (the Palais Wilson) houses the rights office… that I do think is unfortunate. That is one of those accidents of history.”
‘A man of his time?’
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.