The United Nations Durban Review Conference that begins April 20 in Geneva will be one of the largest international gatherings ever held to discuss the eradication of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances. Given our history of slavery and Jim Crow, one might imagine that the United States would play a lead role in planning this conference. But no. In a departure from its repeated policy of seeking engagement, the Obama administration is thus far refusing to even participate.
This conference is a follow-up to the historic World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001, where a vast majority of the global community came together to make commitments to combat racism including its gender-based manifestations. These commitments are reflected in the declaration from that conference, which among other things, calls on governments to adopt plans for addressing poverty and social exclusion that consider the needs and experiences of groups who are victims of racism. During this economic crisis, an analysis of the role of structural racism in sustaining poverty is necessary.
There has been an intense lobbying effort to distract from the mission of the Durban Review Conference based mostly on misleading information. Groups are pressuring the Obama administration to boycott it, claiming primarily that conference documents single out Israel for criticism, and that there are some attempts to curtail freedom of expression in the debate on defamation of religion. The administration added a third objection — payment of reparations for slavery. All these objections have now been removed from the conference document and yet the government hasn’t yet indicated a reversal in its policy. The remaining roadblock appears to be whether the conference should reaffirm the Durban declaration in full.
Some have suggested that the Durban declaration is anti-Semitic but a close read of the document will leave many confused about that charge. One is hard-pressed to find the offending language in the document, which is probably why the problematic part of the text hasn’t been clearly identified by people who object to the conference. The first statement relating to Israel recalls that the Holocaust must never be forgotten, and the only two direct references to Israel recognize the country’s right to security, and call for the end of violence and the respect for human rights law so as to allow the resumption of the peace process for both Israel and the Palestinians. This language was negotiated by the countries that stayed at the conference, not the two — the United States and Israel —that walked out.
Anyone who believes in fighting racial injustice and promoting human rights should be deeply disappointed by President Barack Obama’s decision to skip the conference thus far. This decision was made after just one meeting in a process that has taken place over three years.
The unfortunate timing of the first conference, which took place a few days before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, meant largely a lost opportunity. With the Durban Review Conference there’s a new chance to recapture global momentum in addressing the entrenched problem of racism and the inequality that it breeds. The United States can only make useful contributions to the outcome of the conference if it’s at the table. Furthermore, a U.S. absence at the conference would have a long-term damaging effect on the domestic and global fight against racism by sending the signal that advancing racial equality is not an issue worth engaging.
The Obama administration should reverse its decision and go to Geneva. There’s too much at stake both at home and abroad.