Dispatches from Durban II: To the UN and the NGOs, Any Criticism of Any Muslim Is

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Dispatches from Durban II: To the UN and the NGOs, Any Criticism of Any Muslim Is

Apr 21st, 2009 4 min read

Commentary By

Steven Groves @steven_groves

Margaret Thatcher Fellow

Brett D. Schaefer

Senior Research Fellow, International Regulatory Affairs

Americans are growing increasingly skeptical of the United Nations. A recent Rasmussen poll found that a mere 27 percent of American voters regard the U.N. as an ally of the United States. If you wonder why that is, or whether it is deserved, take a look at the U.N. Human Rights Council. It does a wonderful job of serving as a platform for notorious regimes like China's or Iran's to criticize Israel and the U.S., but a terrible job of actually promoting human rights.

A prime example of this is about to play itself out in Geneva, where a global human-rights meeting called the Durban Review Conference ("Durban II," for short) is being held this week, ostensibly to work towards combating racism. Durban II is the follow-up to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. That conference was intended to be "a landmark in the struggle to eradicate all forms of racism . . . [and] a unique opportunity to create a new world vision for the fight against racism in the twenty-first century."

But what started as a seemingly well-intentioned effort to focus the international community on fighting racism quickly ran off the rails, as those bent on condemning Israel and America dominated the drafting of the Durban conference's official "outcome document." Pre-conference drafts condemned Israel for allegedly pursuing a racist Zionist agenda and committing crimes against humanity, in the form of the Palestinian people. A group of African nations sought reparations from the West for slavery (with no mention whatsoever of the role played by Arab and African nations in the slave trade).

The events of the 2001 Durban conference itself were tame compared to the forum held beforehand by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), where vilification of Israel and the U.S. dominated the agenda. The NGOs exerted enormous pressure on governments to criticize the U.S. for a litany of perceived crimes, including widespread racism, and for having a foreign policy that was "responsible for racial oppression around the world."

In the light of the 2001 experience, there has been a long-running debate in the U.S. government and the human-rights community as to whether the U.S. should attend Durban II. As the Durban II preparatory meetings unfolded, beginning in 2007, it became clear that the conference would do very little to combat racism. The most obvious clue came when the human-rights paragons at the U.N. elected a representative of Libya to serve as chairman of the preparatory meetings, and representatives of human-rights abusers such as Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia to serve as vice chairmen. President Bush saw the writing on the wall. He kept the U.S. away from preparatory meetings, and withheld funding as well.

Would the incoming Obama administration -- committed to multilateral engagement and led by the first African-American president in history -- reverse Bush's "cowboy unilateralism" and attend the global conference on racism? Many believed that a dramatic shift in the U.S. position could cure all that ailed the preparatory meetings.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Durban II. Since the Bush administration had not attended the preparatory meetings, other Western nations had to pursue the fight to delete the worst elements of the draft "outcome document," which will become the official statement of the conference. These nations were uniformly unsuccessful; statements highly critical of one nation -- Israel -- remained in the draft document, along with attacks on free speech in the guise of opposing "defamation of religion" (i.e., saying anything critical of Islamic extremism).

Despite months of effort, European representatives and human-rights groups failed to change the draft in any substantive way. Then in March a new, updated version of the draft outcome document appeared. It no longer contained overt condemnation of Israel or endorsement of constraints on free speech.

What caused the dramatic turnaround? A press release from the U.S. State Department on February 27, stating that it would not send a delegation to Durban II since "the current text of the draft outcome document is not salvageable." After months and months of discussion and debate, the most controversial and polarizing parts of the draft statement disappeared -- but only after the U.S. announcement. We might call this the "triumph of disengagement."

Hearing such a firm statement from the U.S. under the multilaterally inclined President Obama clearly shocked the chairman from Libya and the powerful voting blocs that hold sway over the proceedings, including the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). In order to keep the 27 nations of the European Union from following the U.S. and boycotting en masse, the OIC and other opponents of human rights realized that a significant alteration of the draft outcome document was necessary.

For now, that ploy appears to have partially succeeded. Most EU nations still plan to attend, although the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Poland, and Italy -- plus Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia -- have had enough and are boycotting. Thankfully, the U.S. was not lured back to Durban II.

As Durban II kicks off today with President Mahmoud ("Wipe Israel off the map") Ahmadinejad of Iran headlining the agenda, there will no doubt be much lamenting about the decisions of some countries to skip the conference. They will be chastised for failing to engage, or for not allowing dialogue to overcome differences.

But what purpose is there to entering a dialogue when the other side is not only not listening, but actively seeking to undermine the very purpose of the conference? Durban II is not about incrementally advancing human rights or combating racism. It's not even about reaffirming past human-rights agreements. For many participants, Durban II is about regressing and weakening fundamental human rights.

While the Durban II draft document no longer contains the worst elements of earlier drafts, it still endorses constraints on freedom of expression and assembly. It reaffirms the 2001 document that caused the U.S. to walk out. That is bad enough.

Furthermore, countries hostile to Israel and to freedom of speech will have ample opportunity to reinsert worse references into the outcome document during the conference itself. Having numbers on their side, they are likely to succeed. Attending Durban II would place countries that are genuinely seeking to combat racism on the defensive. In the end, the U.S. would probably have faced the choice of accepting an objectionable document or walking out, as Secretary of State Colin Powell ordered the U.S. delegation to do in 2001. And no amount of dialogue will change that.

Brett D. Schaefer and Steve Groves are fellows at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in the National Review Online