The Folly of the U.S. Boycott

The U.S. boycott of the historic United Nations Conference Against Racism is indicative of the growing U.S. arrogance in international forums. The Bush administration, backed by congressional leaders of both parties, used a couple of controversial lines–out of a document hundreds of paragraphs long–critical of the policies of a U.S. ally as an excuse to avoid addressing such critical questions as racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination that continue to plague humanity.

The proposed debate on “Zionism as a form of racism,” one of the issues that most disturbed the U.S. government, was dropped from the proposed agenda several weeks ago and attempts to revive it at the conference got nowhere. Similarly, efforts to declare Israel a “racist state” never made much headway, either. Thankfully, there was more than sufficient opposition to keep such language out of the final document.

The U.S. still objected to revised language debated in Durban that focused upon specific, well-documented racist policies of Israel’s right-wing government, even though it was not an indictment of Zionism or Israel as a whole. The U.S. also objected to references to Israel as an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite the fact that the United Nations, virtually every government in the world, and basic tenets of international law recognize it as such.

It is not new for the United States to try to shield its rightist allies from justifiable criticisms. Richard Holbrook, when he was Jimmy Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, denied in congressional testimony that Indonesia was responsible for the massacres of tens of thousands of East Timorese. Three years later, President Ronald Reagan declared that Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, whose army was engaged in the slaughter of thousands of that country’s Indians, was getting “a bum rap.”

It is not surprising then, that the Bush administration–backed by congressional Democrats–sought to similarly protect the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon, whose crimes may be on a lesser scale, but are still very real.

A case could be made that such strongly worded language, even while valid and accurate, was not helpful since it distracted from the broader issues at stake in the conference. Furthermore, it further divided Jews, a historically oppressed people, from their natural allies among people of color. Similarly, many other governments that have as bad or even worse racist policies than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians were not subjected to criticism, raising concerns that this proposed resolution is being brought up not out of universal anti-racist principles, but out of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging the validity of concerns while seeking to tone down the language toward a consensus document, as did the Europeans and Canadians, the U.S. rejected the validity of the criticism outright and walked out of the conference. The final wording, made possible by the willingness of virtually every other country to stay and negotiate, ended up being quite reasonable. The declaration criticized the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation; condemned anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism, and Islamaphobia; noted that the horror of the Holocaust must “never be forgotten;” and implicitly recognized the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

To many observers, the U.S. boycott of the conference came not out of any genuine concern about possible anti-Semitism, but as an excuse to avoid addressing issues of racism in U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Indeed, the way the U.S. pressed this issue and blocked compromise proposals raised suspicions that the U.S. was simply looking for an excuse to boycott the conference and thereby discredit international action against racism.

Indeed, the boycott is demonstrative of the lack of concern the U.S. has for the substantive issues raised at the conference, such as the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, racist disparities in law enforcement the justice system, and the adverse impact of racism on healthcare, particularly the AIDS pandemic. It has simply served to isolate America still further in the international community and weakens the important struggle against racism in all its forms. The U.S. is now officially among the few countries in the world not formally committed to the fight against racism. This is nothing less than shameful.