September 23, 2011

September 23, 2011 | WebMemo on International Law

The Obama Administration Was Right to Boycott Durban III, but Should Also Withhold U.S. Funds

The United Nations General Assembly held a high-level meeting on September 22 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action at the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The Durban commemoration (also called Durban III) was boycotted by at least 15 countries,[1] including the United States, which announced June 1 that it would not attend the meeting, at the urging of a number of U.S. legislators.  

The Obama Administration should be commended for this decision. The symbolism of the boycott is important. If the U.S. had attended Durban III, it would have lent legitimacy to the proceedings and to the original Durban Declaration and its associated anti-Semitic agenda. However, even though the U.S. rightly boycotted Durban III, unless action is taken, American taxpayer dollars will help pay for the disgraceful conference. The U.S. should complement its boycott by withholding the proportionate U.S. share of the cost of Durban III.

Ongoing U.S. Opposition to the Durban Declaration

The 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (held in Durban, South Africa) started as a seemingly well-intentioned effort to focus the international community on fighting racism. However, it was quickly derailed. Those intent on condemning Israel and America dominated 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. Nongovernmental organizations 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.[2]

American 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. Among other objectionable issues, the Durban Declaration associated only Israel out of all the world’s nations with racism, eliciting memories of the notorious 1975 General Assembly Resolution 3379 that determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

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. [3]

The 2009 Durban Review Conference (also called Durban II) echoed the 2001 conference on a number of levels. Countries sought to reaffirm the objectionable Durban Declaration and include discriminatory references to Israel in the Durban II outcome document. However, Durban II also saw Muslim countries insert statements into the outcome document that would support constraints on freedom of speech and expression to prevent the “defamation of religions.” The Obama Administration determined that these and other passages in the draft outcome document were too objectionable to justify America’s participation in Durban II and announced that the U.S. would boycott the conference unless they were changed. Last-minute changes fell short, and the Obama Administration walked away from Durban II just as the Bush Administration did at the first Durban conference in 2001.[4]

Last fall, the U.N. General Assembly debated the idea of holding a 2011 conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 2001 Durban Declaration and affirming the outcome document of the 2009 Durban Review Conference. The U.S. opposed these proposals in the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural)[5] and the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary)[6] of the U.N. General Assembly, but was outvoted. The U.S. explained its vote opposing the Durban commemoration unambiguously:

We remain deeply concerned about speech that advocates national, racial, or religious hatred, particularly when it seeks to incite violence, discrimination, or hostility. However, based on our own experience, the United States remains convinced that the best antidote to offensive speech is not bans and punishments but a combination of three key elements: robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to racial and religious groups, and the vigorous defense of freedom of expression....

In addition to these concerns with the resolution, we are also deeply troubled by the choice of time and venue for the 10th anniversary commemorative event. Just days earlier, we will have honored the victims of 9/11, whose loved ones will be marking a solemn 10-year anniversary for them and the entire nation. It will be an especially sensitive time for the people of New York and a repeat of the vitriol sadly experienced at past Durban-related events risks undermining the relationship we have worked hard to strengthen over the past few years between the United States and the UN.[7]

Over U.S. objections, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to approve and provide funding for the Durban commemoration.[8]

A Justified Boycott

Despite voicing its opposition to the Durban commemoration in these U.N. votes, the Obama Administration did not rule out the possibility of participating in the event at the time. It was not until June 1, 2011, that Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joseph E. Macmanus responded to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY)[9]—who had written a letter in December 2010 to Ambassador Susan Rice along with 17 other Senators urging a U.S. boycott—and informed her that “The United States will not participate in the Durban Commemoration.”[10]

The decision by the Obama Administration to boycott the Durban commemoration was well founded. During the Durban commemoration, the General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to:

Reaffirm that the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted in 2001, and the outcome document of the Durban Review Conference adopted in 2009, are a comprehensive United Nations framework and solid foundation for combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.[11]

This simple statement places the United Nations on record as supporting, in the words of former Secretary of State Powell:

declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of “Zionism equals racism;” or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world—Israel—for censure and abuse. [12]

The symbolism of a U.S. boycott of Durban III was important. If the U.S. had attended the Durban commemoration, it would have lent unwarranted credibility to the proceedings and legitimacy to the Durban Declaration. Even if the U.S. had attended only to oppose the sentiments of the Durban Declaration or the statements being made, American participation would have implied that the process was serious and worthy of debate when, in truth, Durban III was intended only to celebrate “the hateful and anti-Semitic displays of the 2001 Durban Conference.”[13]

Unfortunately, even though the U.S. boycotted Durban III, unless action is taken, American taxpayer dollars will pay for the disgraceful conference, because it is funded through the U.N.’s regular budget—22 percent of which is paid by the U.S. Withholding America’s proportionate share of the cost of the conference from U.S. contributions to the U.N.’s regular budget would be a fitting funding boycott that would complement the U.S. decision to not attend Durban III.

Be Consistent: Withhold Funding from Durban

The Obama Administration correctly concluded that the Durban commemoration was too objectionable to merit U.S. participation. If a conference is too objectionable to attend, it should also be too objectionable to support financially. Congress and the Administration should refuse to support Durban III financially by withholding America’s proportionate share of the conference from U.S. contributions to the U.N.’s regular budget.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Law

Show references in this report

[1]Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

[2]For a narrative, see John Fonte, “Durban vs. America: NGOs Take on Racism, Poverty, and the First Amendment,” Hudson Institute, August 21, 2001, at (September 23, 2011); John Fonte, “Boycott Durban,” Hudson Institute, August 31, 2001, at (September 23, 2011); 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 (September 23, 2011).

[3]Colin L. Powell, “World Conference Against Racism,” U.S. Department of State, September 3, 2001, at (September 23, 2011).

[4]Brett Schaefer and Steven Groves, “Durban II: Lessons for U.S. Engagement with the U.N. on Human Rights,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2284, June 10, 2009, at

[5]The Third Committee passed the resolution 121–19 with 35 abstentions. See United Nations Third Committee, “Subject: Global efforts for total elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” 52nd Meeting, Vote Name A/C.3/65/L.60, November 23, 2010, at (September 23, 2011).

[6]The Fifth Committee passed the measure 102–17 with 33 abstentions. See United Nations General Assembly, “Official Records Fifth Committee: Summary record of the 27th meeting,” United Nations Document A/C.5/65/SR.27, January 27, 2011, p. 4.

[7]John F. Sammis, United States Deputy Representative to ECOSOC, “Explanation of Vote by John F. Sammis, Deputy Representative to ECOSOC, on the Third Committee Resolution Regarding ‘The Comprehensive Implementation of and Follow-up to the Durban Declaration and Program of Action,’” U.S. Mission to the United Nations, November 23, 2010, at (September 23, 2011), and Ambassador Joseph H. Melrose, Jr., “Statement by Ambassador Joseph H. Melrose, Acting Representative for Management and Reform, on the Programme Budget Implications of the Commemoration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Durban Conference, in the Fifth Committee, General Assembly,” U.S. Mission to the United Nations, December 24, 2010, at (September 23, 2011).

[8]The General Assembly passed it 104–22 with 33 abstentions. See United Nations General Assembly, “Official Records,” United Nations Document A/65/PV.73, December 23, 2010, p. 7, at (September 23, 2011).

[9]Senator Gillibrand had written a letter with 17 other Senators on December 17, 2010, urging the U.S. to “refrain from participating in the conference as long as it undermines the very goal of fighting discrimination with a demonstration of anti-Semitism.” See Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, “At Gillibrand’s Urging, U.S. Announces Pull-Out From U.N. Durban III Summit,” June 1, 2011, at (September 23, 2011).

[10]Letter to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from Joseph E. Macmanus, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs. See UN Watch, “U.S. pulls out of U.N.’s controversial ‘Durban III’ Summit,” June 1, 2011, at (September 23, 2011).

[11]United Nations General Assembly, “United Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” United Nations Document A/66/L.2, September 16, 2011, at (September 23, 2011).

[12]Powell, “World Conference Against Racism.”

[13]The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by the Press Secretary on the 10th Anniversary of the Durban Conference,” September 22, 2011, at (September 23, 2011).