As the international community prepares to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Durban World Conference Against Racism, the Obama administration has decided that America will boycott the event.
The move, announced on June 1, won praise from a variety of Jewish organizations, but prompted surprisingly little criticism from human rights groups that in the past voiced support for the Durban conference as a key vehicle for combating racism.
Describing the anniversary gathering as a tribute to a meeting that included “ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism,” the State Department said the United States will not participate in the event, scheduled to take place in September under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly, in New York. Initially overshadowed by the September 11 terror attacks, the first conference, convened in Durban, South Africa, was later seen by Jewish activists as a watershed moment in turning world public opinion against Israel. The United States and Israel dropped out of the conference as it began discussing language equating Zionism with racism in its concluding document. And while the final paper did not contain that language, it did focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a racial issue and ignored other conflict regions, leading supporters of Israel to condemn it as biased in content and anti-Semitic in tone.
“That is the event that renewed the discussion on Zionism as racism,” said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, one of several Jewish groups leading the fight against commemorating the anniversary of the first conference.
Following that conference, Jewish activists engaged in a concerted effort to contain the damage done by the Durban declaration and to make sure America’s administration maintained a firm stance against reviving the discussion that began there.
These efforts were tested in 2009, when the U.N. convened a follow-up event known as the Durban Review Conference. “It came up right as the Obama administration was taking office, when the administration was trying a new approach of engaging with institutions that the previous administration was reluctant to engage with,” recalled Martin Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “There was a great temptation to see this as an important opportunity for the new president.” Still, Obama decided that the United States would not attend. “It was a difficult decision,” Raffel said.
This time around, the decision seemed easier. With the commemoration event approaching, Jewish groups once again lobbied the administration for a boycott and found a receptive audience. The Obama administration quickly concluded that there was little hope of changing the anti-Israel spirit of the event.
“It is a pretty easy argument to say we shouldn’t be celebrating a conference we walked away from,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s director of public policy.
Delegates of U.N. member countries have been discussing for weeks the format of the upcoming commemoration event and only recently began debating the draft of a statement to be adopted at its conclusion. But according to an Israeli diplomat, the United States agreed with Israel that the final document would be biased against the Jewish state.
Anne Bayefsky, a longtime critic of the U.N. approach toward Israel, has argued that Obama’s decision to boycott the conference was politically motivated. “The decision appears to be a clear reaction to the negative political fallout surrounding Mr. Obama’s recent veiled attempt to shove indefensible borders down Israel’s throat,” Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute, wrote in an opinion piece published on Fox News’ website. She pointed out that America’s decision not to attend came seven months after Canada and Israel announced their plans to boycott the meeting.
Supporters of Israel also fear the timing and venue of the event, which is widely referred to as the Durban III. (The review conference convened in 2009 is known as Durban II.) It will come only days after the ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks at ground zero, when world attention will be focused on New York City. It also coincides with the expected vote on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. General Assembly, another factor that could increase interest at the Durban III event.
This impact could run counter to the unofficial goal, set by supporters of Israel, to marginalize the Durban process and discredit its outcome. Some are already seeing encouraging signs of progress on this front, because of both the decision of the Obama administration to boycott Durban III and the lack of public protest from leading human rights groups.
But Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said her organization still supports the Durban process. Hicks said the Obama administration’s decision was “unfortunate” and was based on “unfounded concerns.” While acknowledging that the 2001 meeting was tainted, mainly due to decisions adopted by the nongovernmental organization forum that was part of the Durban conference, Hicks stressed that the process is still useful and needed. “It is unfortunate that we cannot find a way to address the many issues that were raised in the 2009 review conference,” she said.
Jewish groups, however, vowed to continue to work to make sure the framework of Durban is laid to rest. “We think the U.S. should take this message to the other U.N. member states and tell them: Join us in fighting human rights abuses, but not through the Durban process,” Salberg said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.