Citing language referring to reparations for slavery and “repeated and unbalanced criticisms of Israel,” the United States announced it would not participate in the Durban Review Conference this Friday, also known as Durban II, after spending about a week trying to cleanse the document of what it found objectionable. The goal of the conference is to review the progress made since the last gathering in 2001 and take stock of “contemporary manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
The reasons for pulling out are consistent with what the U.S. State Department claimed said were its redlines prior to engaging in the preparatory talks. In a February 20th press release the U.S. said it held strong “reservations about the direction of the conference” because the “draft document singles out Israel for criticism, places unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression under the guise of defaming religion, and calls for payment of reparations for slavery.”
We are left to believe that since the U.S. could not achieve sufficient progress on all fronts that the document was unsalvageable and therefore the prospect of participation impossible.
Even to engage in the preparatory talks seemed like a big step at the time, but abandoning the process so soon after doing so gives the human rights and international community the impression that admininstration always intended to offer a token presence only to make a quick exit.
Fierce critics of the Durban II such are using this opportunity to say I told you so. ” …the Obama administration has recognized that indeed, the racism conference is an exercise in Israel-bashing, and not worth attending,” so saith the National Review.
Others are weary of what Obama has in store since he the administration did not announce an outright boycott and has stated it will participate in the next Human Rights Council session where many of the resolutions condemning Israel are usually hatched. “Whether Obama actually stays away from Durban II is most likely to depend on his cost-benefit analysis of sacrificing Israel vs. heeding the siren’s call to engage,” declared Anne Bayesfsky in Fortue Magazine.
This is typical of those who believe that the UN itself is an unsalvageable institution, but offer no solutions as to how to prevent the usual suspects from targeting Israel or undermining the mission of the UN. Its as if they think that if the United States is not leading the effort to promote human rights or controlling the direction of UN, America should abandon any hope of working within it. Its ultimately defeatist and limits the ability of the U.S. to reach out to other countries in an imperfect world.
By the same token, however, the Obama admininstration set themselves up for this kind of criticism by invoking the criteria it did given the tight time frame it had to work with. It set a number of ambitious goals it knew it could not accomplish to rationalize its eventual departure and had little to show for engaging in the excercise. Its unclear, for instance, whether or not this has helped the U.S. in its attempt to win a seat on the Human Rights Council or achieve any other strategic objective.
Observers are also left wondering what the Obama administration will do to advance racial justice in its attempt to promote human rights. Given the unique standing of the U.S., especially with its new president and because of its national experience, it can effectively promote racial justice as part of its larger human rights agenda in the same way it has promoted open societies and free expression as a way of spreading democracy around the world during the cold war. If the U.S. showed leadership in this regard other countries will follow, provided we invest the time and resources. Durban II even with all its pitfalls could have served as a stepping stone to a more livable world by making racial equality part of the criteria in which the community of nations should be judged.
I suppose we will have to wait and see how the Obama admininstration will pivot from this episode and reposition themselves to usher in a new era of U.S.-U.N relations.