The Bush Administration has justifiably expressed its opposition
to the 2009 Durban Review Conference, commonly referred to as
Durban II. Durban II is the follow-up to the disastrous 2001 United
Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The 2001 conference, held in
Durban, South Africa, fell victim to nations and non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) that hijacked it to criticize Israel and the
United States. After unsuccessfully trying to counter those
efforts, the U.S. delegation walked out of the 2001 conference.
Durban II is following in the footsteps of the 2001 conference.
Recent clarifications of U.S. policy and the decision to withhold
funding from the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) and from the
HRC-administered preparatory process for Durban II are warranted
and a welcome reinforcement of the Administration's policy of
opposing a repeat of the 2001 U.N. conference.
The Durban I Agenda
The 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial
Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance started as a
seemingly well-intentioned effort to focus the international
community on fighting racism. However, it was quickly derailed as
those intent on condemning Israel and America managed to dominate
the agenda, the drafting of documents, and the events surrounding
the conference. Pre-conference drafts condemned Israel for
allegedly pursuing a racist Zionist agenda and committing crimes
against humanity. NGOs exerted enormous pressure on the conferees
to criticize the U.S. for a litany of perceived crimes, including
widespread racism, a foreign policy that was "responsible for
racial oppression around the world," denial of economic "rights,"
and refusal to adopt U.N. treaties without reservations.
Efforts to resolve these disputes before and during the
conference were largely unsuccessful. In the end, the 2001 Durban
conference degenerated into a noxious series of speeches and
statements dominated by anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. When it
became obvious that the conference would not be a useful venue for
combating racism, discrimination, xenophobia, or intolerance, the
U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out.
The Problems with Durban II
Despite the black mark left by its predecessor, the U.N. is busy
setting the stage for Durban II in 2009. In its 61st session, the
U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for a "Durban
Review Conference" to be funded through the U.N. regular budget, of
which the U.S. is expected to pay 22 percent. The resolution passed
despite the concerns expressed by Australia, Canada, Israel,
members of the European Union, the U.S., and other prominent member
There are numerous troubling signs that the review conference
will be a repeat of 2001, including:
- Oversight by the gravely disappointing U.N. Human
Rights Council (HRC). The General Assembly placed
responsibility for organizing Durban II with the HRC. The council
has been a grave disappointment in fulfilling its role as the
premier U.N. human rights body. Since its creation in 2006 to
replace the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Human
Rights Council has failed to address ongoing repression in Belarus,
China, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and many other places around
This is hardly surprising, since the members of the Human Rights
Council include Cuba, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other noted
human rights abusers. These countries use their influence to
undermine efforts by the council to carry out its mandate. While
the council has passed relatively mild condemnations of Sudan and
Burma, it has saved its strongest criticism for Israel, condemning
it in 19 separate decisions and resolutions.
- Organization by repressive and anti-Semitic
governments. The HRC decided that it will act as the
Preparatory Committee for Durban II, with Libya as chair, electing
19 other countries to serve on the bureau for the Preparatory
Committee that will set the agenda and objectives for the Review
Conference. Among the 19 vice-chairs are Cuba, Iran, Pakistan,
Russia, and South Africa, none of which has distinguished itself as
a champion of equality or human rights during its tenure on the
Libya and Iran are particularly ill-suited to overseeing
preparations for Durban II. Both countries are strong supporters of
the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which has
historically been hostile to Israel. Libya is also a member of the
League of Arab States, whose Arab Charter on Human Rights calls for
the elimination of "Zionism," and Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad has infamously stated that Israel "must be wiped off
the map" and that "Zionists are the true manifestation of Satan."
Moreover, the 2001 Durban Declaration contains positions and
provisions with which the U.S. strongly disagrees. Since the stated
purpose of Durban II is to further the implementation of the Durban
Declaration, it makes little sense for the U.S. to participate in a
process that would expand on an outcome that is incompatible with
American Opposition to Durban II
The U.S. has expressed its concerns explicitly and has adopted a
policy of voting against proposals for a follow-up to the Durban
conference, forgoing participation in the preparatory meetings, and
voting against the U.N. budget that included funding for Durban II.
The U.S. also announced its intention to boycott Durban II if it
looks as if it will be a repeat of the 2001 conference.
Recent State Department statements, however, have clarified the
U.S. position and announced the decision to withhold the U.S.
portion of the $6.8 million expected costs for Durban II as well as
that portion of its U.N. regular budget assessment that would go to
fund the HRC. This decision was first announced by Assistant
Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kristin
Silverberg during her April 2, 2008, testimony before the
Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and
Oversight of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Shortly
thereafter, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Zalmay Khalilzad offered more clarity when he said:
The U.S. voted against [resolutions to convene Durban II]
because we do not believe there will be a meaningful review of any
of the problematic aspects of the original Durban Conference, and
that therefore the expenditure of any UN funds on preparatory
meetings or the "review" conference itself would be a colossal and
irresponsible waste of such funds.
In fact, in December 2007, the U.S. voted against the entire UN
budget in part because of our staunch opposition to the inclusion
of funding for Durban II….
We will not participate [in Durban II] unless it is proven that
the conference will not be used as a platform for anti-Semitic
Because of our concerns, the United States will withhold a
portion of its 2008 funding for the United Nations-specifically, an
amount equivalent to the U.S. share of the Human Rights Council
budget, including amounts that would pay for the HRC-administered
preparatory process for a Durban II conference tentatively
scheduled for 2009.
While this sentiment may be identical to earlier U.S.
statements, Ambassador Khalilzad expressed the policy in clearer,
stronger language. Using the word "proven" establishes a higher bar
than that used in previous statements, which indicated that the
decision to participate would be based on whether the U.S. was
"confident" that Durban II would not be a repeat of Durban I.
Although the difference is slight, diplomacy is based on language,
and this formulation shifts the onus of participation from a U.S.
judgment call to one based on clear evidence provided by the
conference organizers to the U.S. that Durban II will not be a
repeat of Durban I.
Khalilzad's statement also provides a more specific metric for
determining participation: namely, that "that the conference will
not be used as a platform for anti-Semitic behavior." Previous
statements indicated that the U.S. decision will be based on
whether the U.S. concludes that Durban II would "avoid the problems
of Durban I" without stating the specific problems. Considering
that the agenda will be set in part by Iran and Libya and that the
same NGOs that distorted the 2001 conference will again
participate, it is hard to see what proof could be provided that
Durban II will not be used as a platform for anti-Semitic
The most desirable aspect of these recent statements, however,
is the decision to withhold the U.S. portion of the U.N. regular
budget that funds the Human Rights Council and the funds for the
preparatory process for a Durban II conference. Congress prohibited
funding for the U.N. Human Rights Council in the Consolidated
Appropriations Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-161) but had included a waiver
that would have permitted the Administration to provide funds to
the HRC. Rightly, the Administration decided not to
exercise that waiver based on the council's ineffectiveness in
promoting fundamental human rights and extreme bias in criticizing
Israel. This decision also will withhold the funds that would pay
for the Durban II preparatory process administered by the HRC.
Historically, the only proven way to get the U.N. and the other
member states to take U.S. objections seriously is to withhold
funds. Simply voicing displeasure over U.N. actions or activities
makes a minimal impression on the organization, and diplomacy has a
limited impact on U.N. budgetary matters. For instance, the U.S.
repeatedly objected to including funds for Durban II in the
2008/2009 U.N. regular budget. Eventually the U.S. voted no on the
budget, based in significant part on the inclusion of funds for
Durban II. The other member states applauded following
the approval of the U.N. budget over the objections of the U.S.
This left little option for the U.S. if it wished to prevent
taxpayer dollars from supporting Durban II.
While withholding the proportional U.S. share of the HRC budget
and Durban II would have little direct effect on those activities
because the withholding would be spread across all U.N. activities
funded through the regular budget, it would clearly signal U.S.
displeasure and be the only practical means for trying to prevent
U.S. taxpayer funds from supporting the dysfunctional HRC and the
pending disaster of Durban II. To make sure that this policy has
the broadest effect, however, the U.S. should clarify that it
opposes the use of any U.S. funds to support the conference.
Canada and Israel have announced that they will boycott Durban
II because they have determined that it will be a repeat of 2001.
The U.S. has also expressed its concern that Durban II will devolve
into yet another platform for anti-Israel and anti-America
To its credit, the Bush Administration has steadfastly refused
to attend preparatory meetings on Durban II and has voted against
U.N. resolutions supporting the conference. However, statements by
Administration officials implied that the Administration was
reluctant to boycott Durban II outright.
Recent statements by the State Department and Khalilzad provide
a welcome clarification of the administration's position and raise
the bar against U.S. participation. These officials have also
announced a welcome decision to withhold the proportional U.S.
share of the U.N. regular budget that funds the Human Rights
Council and the HRC-administered preparatory process for a Durban
II conference. While the Administration could remove lingering
doubts by clearly stating that the U.S. will boycott Durban II, the
recent statements and the decision to withhold funding are a
welcome and necessary reinforcement of U.S. opposition to Durban
Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory
Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage
narrative, see John Fonte, "Durban vs. America: NGOs Take on
Racism, Poverty, and the First Amendment," Hudson Institute, August
21, 2001, at www.hudson.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=publication_details&id=961
John Fonte, "Boycott Durban," Hudson Institute, August 31, 2001, at
and Tom Lantos, "The Durban Debacle: An Insider's View of the UN
World Conference Against Racism," Tufts University, Fletcher School
of Law and Diplomacy, Fletcher Forum of World Affairs
Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2002), at
United Nations Department of Public
Information, "General Assembly Adopts 46 Third Committee Texts on
Human Rights Issues, Refugees, Self-Determination, Racism, Social
Development," General Assembly Document GA/10562, December 19,
2006, at www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2006/ga10562.doc.htm;
United Nations, "Official Records," General Assembly Document
A/61/PV.81, 81st Plenary Meeting, December 19, 2006, at
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speech at "The World
Without Zionism" Conference, Tehran, October 26, 2005, at www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/weekinreview/30iran.html,
and "Ahmadinejad in Sudan: 'Zionists Are the True Manifestation of
Satan,'" Haaretz, March 1, 2007, at
legislation specifically instructed that "None of the funds
appropriated by this Act may be made available for a United States
contribution to the United Nations Human Rights Council" unless
"the Secretary of State certifies to the Committees on
Appropriations that the provision of funds to support the United
Nations Human Rights Council is in the national interest of the
United States" or if the "United States is a member of the Human
Rights Council." Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008, Public
Law 110-161, Section 695.
Ambassador Mark Wallace, "Explanation of Vote
on Agenda Item 128: Questions Relating to the Proposed Program
Budget for the Biennium 2008-2009, in the Fifth Committee of the
General Assembly," United States Mission to the United Nations,
USUN Press Release No. 387(07), December 22, 2007, at www.un.int/usa/press_releases/20071222_387.html.