Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

Don't Do Durban II

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Last Thursday, in a full-page ad in the Washington Times, a group of influential observers - including Alan Dershowitz, Victor Davis Hanson, Bernard Lewis, Martin Peretz, and Elie Wiesel - urged Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to announce that the United States will not attend the U.N.'s forthcoming "anti-racism" conference known as Durban II. The conference, the ad said, far from combating racism, will fuel hatred of Israel and encourage anti-Semitism. Israel itself will not be in attendance, and foreign minister Tzipi Livni has called for American support.

Meanwhile, the congressional black caucus and human-rights groups around the country are urging Obama to attend and legitimize Durban II, which will take place in Geneva in April 2009. A decision is expected shortly, and in making it, Obama would do well to remember the moral leadership Democrats have shown in facing down U.N.-driven hatred of Israel in the past. In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution alleging the self-determination of the Jewish people - Zionism - was racism. In response, U.S. ambassador and soon-to-be Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told the Assembly, "The United States . . . does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act."

For the next 16 years, this resolution poisoned all U.N. "anti-racism" activities. When the Assembly voted to rescind the resolution in 1991, most participating Muslim states voted to keep it, and a plan to resurrect it began as soon as the first version was shuffled off the stage. Act II culminated in the U.N. "anti-racism" conference held in Durban, South Africa, which ended three days before 9/11.

U.S. delegation head, Democratic congressman, and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos walked out, together with the state of Israel's representation. Lantos explained, "A conference that should have been about horrible discrimination around the world has been hijacked by extremist elements for its own purposes. . . . What you have here is the paradox of an anti-racism conference that is itself racist."

True to U.N. form, the outcome of this conference became the centerpiece of the organization's "anti-racism" agenda, and the process of convening a "follow-up" meeting moved into high gear two years ago. The first of four objectives is "to foster the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action." That Declaration, adopted after the U.S. and Israel made their opposition plain, claims that Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism. This claim is the only country-specific accusation in a document that purports to address racism and xenophobia around the world.

Those who claim the U.S. should participate in Durban II put forth four main arguments.

First comes a three-part claim: Durban II is only designed to implement Durban I's conclusions, those conclusions represent a U.N. consensus, and the only problem with Durban I was a nasty nongovernmental forum that took place alongside it. Leading this cover-up is, not surprisingly, the U.N. itself. Addressing the most recent Durban II preparatory committee in October of this year, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, said:

    Seven years ago at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, the virulent anti-Semitic behavior of a few non-governmental organizations on the sidelines of the Durban Conference overshadowed the critically important work of the Conference. Measures were taken to address this.
This is simply false. Sitting in the back of the drafting committee of the Durban I governmental conference, I watched the deletion of virtually every paragraph on anti-Semitism - carefully prepared provisions articulating a range of steps to combat this scourge. Then the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference struck a deal: The EU gained a mention of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, in exchange for allowing a condemnation of racist Israel.

Also, Durban I was not a U.N.-wide consensus, since the U.S. and Israel voted with their feet. Furthermore, some states, like Canada, made formal reservations to the racist-Israel language during the final adoption of the Declaration. (When it found that every U.N. printing of the Declaration omits those formal reservations, Canada became the first country to refuse to participate in a conference dedicated to implementing Durban I.)

The second argument for U.S. participation is that it is not anti-Semitic for the Durban Declaration to call Israel racist. Islamic countries champion this approach. Throughout the preparatory process for Durban II, such human-rights luminaries as Algeria have gone so far as to claim that anti-Semitism is actually about Arabs and Muslims (ignoring the common meaning of the term and emphasizing the fact that Arabs are, literally speaking, Semitic).

General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann endorses the view that anti-Semitism can be distinguished from anti-Israeli sentiment. He has said, "I have a great love for the Jewish people and this has been true all my life. I have never hesitated to condemn the crimes of the Holocaust." Then he alleged that Israeli policies amount to "apartheid," "must be outlawed," and should be met by a "campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to pressure Israel."

Durban II (as Durban I before it) will feign interest in combating anti-Semitism and remembering the Holocaust.The problem, the story goes, is not with Jews but with the Jewish state. Anti-Zionism is not a form of anti-Semitism. The modern state created for the sake of the Jewish people is racist, but this belief is consistent with "a great love for the Jewish people."

The third argument is the idea that while the conference is bad for Jews, it is good for other minorities or oppressed groups. Therefore, opposition to the conference must stem from the belief that Jews' interests are more important than other minorities'. This is the reasoning put forth by the Congressional Black Caucus and human-rights groups in America and abroad.

The problem here is that human-rights gurus would never dream of dismissing the claims of Dalits, or the Roma, or black South Africans in the same vein. And for a very good reason: In the words of the U.N. Charter, international peace and security are premised on the equality of all nations large and small, and human-rights protection is rooted in the equality of all men and women. Discrimination against a certain state, or a certain people, isn't a consideration the U.N. should weigh against others. To do so is a subversion of the very foundation of the modern human-rights movement.

Fourth is the challenge that comes from what President-elect Obama has described as defining characteristics of his foreign policy, multilateralism and engagement. Prior to Durban I, Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.), a member of the black caucus, said: "As a nation, we must be committed to end racism in all its forms. To do that, we need to be part of the discussion, whether we agree with the final [conference] declaration or not."

The questions Obama needs to ask himself: What exactly will this "discussion" entail, and will it truly aid in the fight against racism? The first question is a factual one - the Durban II agenda is set - and the answer to the second is obvious. As demonstrated throughout this article, Durban II is a debate in which no self-respecting anti-racist should participate.

In contrast to so many items on the incoming administration's doorstep, this issue does not turn on dollars and cents. It is a call for moral leadership, nothing more and nothing less. On September 8, 2001, anti-Semites, violent extremists, and their political enablers took heart at the adoption of the Durban Declaration. In the week of April 20, 2009 such figures will meet again to foster the implementation of that very declaration. For the sake of the day after, Durban II is no place for the United States.

This article first appeared in National Review Online.