The Durban Review Conference and its Critics

12 01 2009

This week Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN designate Dr. Susan Rice will have their confirmation hearings this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday and Thursday.

To be sure, their respective views on humanitarian intervention to nuclear non-proliferation, from devising an exit strategy for Iraq and how to appropriately engage Iran or addressing energy security problems and climate change, among other issues will be thoroughly probed and debated.

Another serious issue that has not received national attention thus far, but merits serious consideration,  is whether or not the United States should participate in the next World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR), otherwise known as Durban II, scheduled to take place April 20-24, 2009.

The chief aim of the last WCAR conference in 2001 was to provide a global framework that national governments could build upon to enact or improve racial anti-discrimination laws and initiatives.

Yet unlike many other United Nations member states, the U.S. has not been involved in the Durban process since 2001 when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell withdrew the U.S. delegation from the conference in Durban, South Africa. Powell said the U.S. could not support the the conference’s collective statement by governments, the Durban Declaration of Programme of Action (DDPA), because it contained language that singled out Israel for criticism.  A handful of countries within the 57 member Organization of Islamic Conference – Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan – led the effort to insert language about foreign occupation and other statements designed to inject the visceral politics of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Ethnic and racial strife in Darfur, Kashmir, Tibet or elsewhere in the world were conspicuously ignored.

Things were worse in the non-governmental forum where a small yet vocal minority of organizations high-jacked the gathering by not only disseminated anti-Semitic and anti-Israel literature and cartoons, but also drafted a document that neither reflected the true the spirit of the conference nor the views of the majority of the forum’s participants.

In the end, the Israel obsession only served to diminish the legitimacy of the conference and subvert its central mission of combating racism and overshadowed some of its more enduring achievements. Instead many choose to focus on it’s failures.

I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of ‘Zionism equals racism,” Powell said in frustration on September 4th as he stormed out of the conference before a final draft was of the document produced.

Five days later, the 9/11 attacks occurred and in the remaining years of the Bush presidency U.N.- U.S. relations soured along with American standing in Muslim majority countries.

Wrestling with the Legacy of Durban I

Fearing a repeat of the 2001 conference, Israel and Canada have already said they will boycott Durban II. The respective U.S. out-going and in-coming presidential administrations have remained silent on whether or not the America will participate in April. Most UN member states, however, are not so quick to abandon the process.

Despite the efforts of certain OIC governments seeking to undermine the process in the 2001, the document, which was endorsed by a majority of a 134 countries in the UN General Assembly, managed to have a positive impact on other UN member nations striving to achieve some measure of racial justice. For  example, the DDPA recognized the Dalits, or the 160 million “untouchables” in India as victims of caste based discrimination elsewhere and that they should be treated as  a protected class in international human rights law.

In 2003, the Brazilian government created the Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality to implement affirmative action programs for people of African and indigenous descent in entering universities and in finding government jobs. This was done in response to the DDPA’s recommendation governments used equal opportunity programs be used to deter racial discrimination and promote integration.

The 2001 document also recognized slavery, including the transatlantic slave trade, as a crime against humanity. Nearly seven years later, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelming passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Thus, while its difficult to draw a cause and effect relationship here, its clear that some of the recommendations coming out of the Durban process helped set standards or even nudge governments in the right direction on racial justice issues.

But many UN observers also see a revival of the same campaign OIC countries to not only derail the process by making Israel a central focus, but also introducing anti-blasphemy measures to limit free expression. This has as much to do with the neglect of the so-called Middle-East process as it does with the controversy spawned by the Danish cartoons.

This has lead some critics of Durban II to believe the U.S. should boycott the conference. “Durban II, planned for April in Geneva, promises to be an encore of the same old Israel-bashing” argues a Wall Street Journal Editorial. “If the Durban II drafters have their way, any challenge of Islamic teachings, including teachings used to justify violence, would be taboo.”

Of course, the document is called a draft for a reason, and an active effort by the U.S. in negotiating the final text of the Durban II document could change things significantly.

Changing the Face of U.S. and U.N. Relations

Not everyone thinks the U.S. should be content to it on the sidelines. In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored (H.R.1361) by Rep. Howard Berman, urging the Secretary of State to “lead a high-level diplomatic effort” in order “to defeat any effort by states to use the forum to promote anti-Semitism or hatred against members of any group or to call into question the legitimacy of any state.”

Other UN observers have been more direct. “Unfortunately, plugging our ears to this kind of dreck neither makes it any less likely to occur, nor deprives it of a forum. The only way to counter speech we don’t like, as the constitutional adage goes, is with more speech” argued John Boonstra at UN Dispatch, a blog that covers UN issues.

Even the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, a staunchly pro-Israel group, urged the United States “to use the preparatory process to halt the further demonization of Israel, ” as opposed to prematurely abandoning the process entirely.

But even if Israel was not central obsession of a few yet influential countries at the U.N., the U.S.  should at least strongly consider participating in the process if it wants to improve its image in the world, which is something Obama aims to do. Choosing to boycott Durban II, the first UN human rights gathering the in-coming Obama administration would have a chance to attend, may after all send the wrong message to the world –  something that the first black president could ill afford to do given the nature of the conference.

The question of race in 21st will only get more complicated with increased immigration from the global south to the global north, and as various countries including the U.S. try to grapple with rapidly changing demographics. Also, Barack Obama needs to demonstrate that he wants to move beyond the excesses of the Bush’s war on terror policies, which has been seen by many as an excuse to target Arabs and Muslims. In other words, the civil strife associated with racism could present diplomatic obstacles and create more instability in the world.

At the same time, however, he should impress on certain countries that terrorism is as real threat to U.S. as it is to countries anywhere else in the world and satirical depictions of religious figures, while offensive, should not be used as an excuse to place limits on freedom of expression, as some OIC countries want to do.

Additionally, Durban II could serve as a stepping stone for an Obama administration looking to reedefine the U.N.-U.S. relations in the post-Bush era. Making sure the conference maintains its central focus on the combating racial discrimination, instead of a proxy battle over Arab-Israeli relations will be a difficult task. But it is still achievable with an energetic and committed team of diplomats. UN Ambassador Dr. Susan Rice is certain capable of leading such an effort on her own and is familiar with the sort of entanglements awaiting her in Geneva.

In a November 2002 speech before a an audience at the University of Delaware, she made the following remarks:

Against this dismal back-drop, we also encounter an international community increasingly skeptical of U.S. intentions and resentful of our power. How did we get here? In large part, we did so by almost reflexively spurning collective instruments – from international treaties such as the ABM treaty, the Bioweapons Convention and the International Criminal Court to multilateral gatherings such as the UN Conference on Racism.

Of course, that was more than six years ago. Dr. Rice may have a different opinion today. But note Dr. Rice’s insistence on the connection between the exercise of American power and blacklash toward retreating from organizations within the U.N. system.

But Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton’s is less likely to support U.S. participation, assuming her statements on the campaign trail are any indication.  “I will never forget how the world’s first conference against racism became a mockery of itself when it descended into anti-Semitism and hatred,” she said in a June 2008 speech at an AIPAC conference.  “The debacle at Durban must never be repeated. We should take very strong action to ensure anti-Semitism is kept off the agenda at Durban II and if those efforts fail, I believe that the United States should boycott that conference.

With Obama’s decision to elevate the U.S. Ambassadorship to the UN to a cabinet level post, Dr. Rice will report directly to the president without the filter of the State Department, though the Secretary of State will likely to be consulted as well. But even in that scenario its difficult to say whose opinion will be given more weight. After all, Dr. Susan Rice is more of the UN expert than Clinton is even if the Secretary of State is regarded as the nation’s top diplomat.

Their statements on Durban II will surely be scrutinized during their respective confirmation hearings, particularly by Senators seeking to pin the in-coming administration down on a definitive ye or nay position on the issue.

Further complicating this issue is Israel’s war in Gaza and the U.S. kneejerk response to support it. Now while Israel’s current bombardment campaign is a separate matter, it will undoubtedly influence what Obama decides.  In his letter, to the outgoing Ambassador to the UN, Obama affirmed his support for Israel in its war in Gaza even as its unpopularity grows exponentially with each passing day and the Palestianian death toll rises.

Hopefully, President-elect Obama will not allow accusations that he is not a “friend” to Israel affect how he determines how to recast U.S.-U.N. relations. Whatever course he decides on this issue should be consistent with his promise to “to renew the trust and faith of our people — and all people — in an America that battles immediate evils, promotes an ultimate good, and leads the world once more” as he said in his Foreign Affairs essay.

That kind of bold leadership requires a break from the past and the political will to create your own opportunities even if they initially present themselves as crises.

Note:  I have changed the title of this post from “The World Conference on Racism and its Critics”  to the “Durban Review Conference and its Critics.” since the former refers to the gathering in that took place in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, and the latter actually refers to the upcoming meeting in April 2009, which is a follow up to the first one.

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12 01 2009
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