By any conventional standard the declaration issued at the conclusion of the Durban II global conference on racism, held in Geneva in late April, was a signal — and a very, very positive — achievement. It is forward-looking in its commitment to protect victims of racism, includes significant new protections for migrants, omits the pernicious idea pushed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference that religions should be protected from “defamation” and does not single out Israel for anything.
Even though the singular rant of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got all the press, the conference was not the “hatefest” that many Jews had confidently and noisily predicted. As early as February, the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris was calling the Durban II planning process “discredited,” while the Anti-Defamation League cautioned governments and NGOs to say “Not again” and insisted, “This time, no one can say let’s just wait to see what happens.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Durban II’s secretary general, complained of a “widespread and highly organized campaign of disinformation” regarding the conference. While she has declined to elaborate on this statement, many believe that she was referring to the efforts of Jewish groups.
But the fears expressed by Jewish organizations proved to be unfounded. Indeed, in negotiations over the conference declaration’s text, the Organization of the Islamic Conference did not end up playing a destructive role. Instead, it showed a willingness to accommodate most American (and Israeli) red lines. Before the Durban II conference even began, virtually all significant American concerns — some of which were about Israel and Jews, and many of which were not — had been accommodated, and properly so.
The one demand that was not met proved to be a killer: The conference document endorsed Durban I. This was understood by many observers to be simply U.N.-speak — no conference ever fails to endorse its predecessors. But to many Jewish groups, it amounted to nothing less than the wholesale incorporation into Durban II of all of Durban I’s antisemitic, Holocaust-denying, genocidal ugliness.
I was at Durban I, and I walked out of its NGO forum along with scores of other Jews. In light of the Durban I trauma, Jewish skepticism over anything named “Durban” is understandable. But Durban II was not Durban I. The unshakable assumption that it was, however, led the United States, Israel and eight other nations not to attend.
Despite the no-shows, the 180 or so countries that did attend achieved astonishing consensus. Western and Muslim governments actually worked together effectively — the very goal President Obama fervently promotes but simultaneously undermined by pulling out of this conference.
Still, there are opportunities for redemption. An American endorsement of the conference’s declaration would, even now, help create a powerful global force against racism. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely. Instead, the future of the Durban II process is uncertain.
This is a shame, and it presents a problem to the Jewish community. Jewish groups played such a prominent role in criticizing Durban II that they were the very first to be informed by the White House of its decision to boycott the conference. (Human rights groups were informed second and civil rights groups third.) International human rights groups, however, think that the Durban II declaration is worth fighting for and are stunned that the opportunity it presents is being squandered. Sadder still, it is no longer assumed that Jewish groups will be allies in global human rights work.
Jews were once seen as being at the forefront of the global campaign for human rights, which is surely where we belong. It’s time for us to once again assume our rightful place in this struggle, and there is no shortage of places to start. One of them is here and now: We can urge the United States to signal its approval of the Durban II declaration. It might be awkward for the White House and for Jewish organizations to do such a sudden turnaround, but furthering the global fight against racism is certainly worth a little egg on the face.
Kathleen Peratis, a partner at the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a board member emerita of Human Rights Watch.