Durban Watch

Durban II

EYEontheUN ALERT - March 13, 2009

Durban II and Obama's Foreign Policy Mantra

The Obama administration promised transparency. It seems only fitting, therefore, to release a transcript (produced unofficially) of a conference call between Karen Stewart - acting assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor - and a group of highly select organizations, which took place on February 27, 2009. On the phone line with this top State Department official was a small cabal of human rights organizations, UN-associated organizations, and an Arab NGO. At stake - U.S. participation in April's UN's Durban II "anti-racism" conference and the UN Human Rights Council. The conversation reveals which groups the administration is trying to please and what would please them. It also points to the devastating impact that can be expected from the Obama foreign policy mantra of "engagement." Now on the chopping block - Israel, equality rights, and American values.

The Background of Durban II

Durban I is the infamous racist anti-racism conference that took place in South Africa and ended three days before 9/11. Durban II is the UN's effort to launch another round of anti-Semitism via its unique global megaphone. It is also the vehicle for Islamic states to change permanently the world of human rights: the point is to move from protecting rights and freedoms to curtailing them in the name of so-called religious sensitivities.

At the time of the conference call everyone knew that the draft declaration on the table (scheduled to be adopted at the conference itself) called Jewish self-determination racist, Israel an apartheid state, questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, introduced limits on free speech, and manufactured worldwide Muslim victims of Western racism (known as "Islamophobia.")

The chair of the drafting committee for Durban II is Libya; Iran is a vice-chair and Cuba is the rapporteur.

Even without the new abominations, the purpose of Durban II is to reaffirm and to implement the Durban I Declaration. But that declaration says Israelis are racists - the only racist country that UN "human rights" authorities could identify. So fixing Durban II is not possible. Protecting human rights would require burying Durban I, not reaffirming and implementing it.

The Background of the UN Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is the UN's lead human rights agency. It was created after the previous incarnation, the ignominious Human Rights Commission, was disbanded in 2006. The UN creators of the Human Rights Council rejected an American idea of instituting a membership condition about actually protecting human rights. So the Bush administration saw no reason to join or to pay for it.

At the time of this conference call everyone knew that the Human Rights Council has proved to be more extreme than its predecessor. It has reduced the influence of democracies and shifted the balance of power to the Islamic bloc. As a consequence, it has had 10 regular sessions on human rights all over the world and five special sessions to condemn Israel alone. It has adopted more resolutions and decisions condemning Israel than all of the other 191 UN states combined. It has one standing agenda item on alleged Israeli violations and one standing item on general human rights issues for everybody else. It has terminated human rights investigations, left over from the Human Rights Commission, on some of the worst places on the planet: Belarus, Cuba, Iran, and Uzbekistan. It trashed its only resolution on freedom of expression, forcing every Western state to withdraw support from this democratic lifeline.

Durban II and the Human Rights Council are intertwined. The council is the preparatory committee for Durban II and has pushed it from the beginning. Elections for membership on the council take place in May of this year, only a few weeks after Durban II ends. Refusing to legitimize Durban II may hurt a state's chances of election to the council. Furthermore, if the only foreign policy mantra the Obama administration can think of is "engagement," there doesn't appear to be anything that ought to prevent the U.S. from jumping on board everything in sight - Durban II and the Council - substance be damned. However, the UN is required to undertake a five-year review of Council operations in 2011. By staying out until that time, the United States would be in a position to leverage its potential membership - and the instant credibility of the participation of the world's greatest democracy - in exchange for reform. U.S. membership should be earned.

The Jewish Problem

The 2001 Durban I was divided into an NGO Forum and a governmental conference. The NGOs adopted a declaration, which said Zionism is racism and got worse from there. An NGO meeting on anti-Semitism that had been planned for months was disrupted and cut short by a screaming mob. The international NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First), decided not to vote against the NGO declaration. They also decided not to vote when a suggestion by Jewish groups concerning anti-Semitism was deleted from that same declaration. The world's leading international NGOs thought there was a midway point between espousing anti-Semitism and denouncing it.

Overall, the hundreds of participating NGOs either agreed outright with the anti-Semitism or believed that the discrimination and demonization of the Jewish state was the price to be paid for getting their own equality issues on the agenda. They never understood that equality rights for some cannot be built on the inequality of others, that anti-Semitism poisons the human rights wellspring, and that intolerance that begins with Jews does not end with Jews.

Although UN officials - most notably the current High Commissioner for Human Rights - claim that only the NGO Forum was problematic, this is not true. Attending both, I watched almost every mention of anti-Semitism deleted from the government draft declaration and witnessed the objectionable bargain that was ultimately reached. After the United States and Israel walked out of Durban I in disgust, the European Union - led by the French - cut a deal. The result allowed a few mentions of anti-Semitism and acknowledgment of the Holocaust, in exchange for casting Israel as racist. Canada joined consensus on most of the document, but made a strong reservation to the Israel-related sections. However, every copy of the Durban Declaration produced by the UN since that time omits the Canadian reservation and claims all of Durban was adopted by consensus.

After Durban, the UN engaged in a major cover-up. For more than seven years, they made the Durban Declaration the centerpiece of the UN's anti-racism movement and spawned multiple Durban "follow-up" activities. They blamed NGOs for all that had gone wrong. They claimed the government conference was a model of civility and the Durban Declaration a human rights godsend.


The same forces present at Durban I are still operating. The Islamic bloc and Arab interests intend to use the global conference as a means to demonize and destroy their enemy on the political battlefield. Human rights organizations are prepared to throw Jews overboard while protecting other people's human rights. The European Union is looking for a way to be the kingpin on the global stage. The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is claiming Durban I got a bad rap and recently made the ugly suggestion of a Jewish conspiracy lurking behind criticism of Durban II.

The behavior of Pillay tells us a lot about the nature of the UN machine and how it pushes anti-Semitism as human rights. Pillay has a vested interest in ensuring the "success" of Durban II. She is the secretary-general of the conference. She is also a native of Durban, South Africa, and when she was appointed last July said the mayor asked her to "rescue" the city's good name. Rather than admitting the past and seeking to avoid its repetition, Pillay has taken on the job of revisionism with a vengeance:

    I am fully aware that the legacy of the 2001 Durban Conference has been tainted by the anti-Semitic behavior of some NGOs at the sidelines of that conference. ... [T]he Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, the document that emerged from the conference in 2001, transcended divisive and intolerant approaches.

She has also deliberately sought to repeat exactly what went wrong. Asked by the Durban II drafting committee to recommend suggestions for inclusion in the final declaration, she contributed: "We must reaffirm the DDPA [Durban Declaration and Programme of Action] without reservation."

Pillay finds fault not with Durban I and its Declaration and Durban II and its draft declaration - but with the critics. More specifically, Jewish critics. On February 20, 2009, she said:

    [T]he review conference has also been the target of a disparaging media and lobbying campaign on the part of those who fear a repetition of anti-Semitic outbursts. This is unwarranted. ... Narrow, parochial interests and reflexive partisanship must be cast aside in the interest of a greater common good.

Those narrow-minded Jews uninterested in the common good - who have actually been at the forefront of human rights movements the world over and have six million good reasons for being concerned about demonization - might be surprised to learn of how the UN's leading spokesperson for human rights ended this speech. Pillay said: "Let me reiterate that - sustained by the United Nations principles of impartiality, independence, and integrity –I regard my office as a springboard for the betterment and welfare of all and a place where all are given a fair audience." Well, not quite all.

So where does all this leave President Obama and the United States? Taking advice from those who, like the UN's top human rights officer, advocate throwing Israel and Jews who support Israel under the bus for the sake of the greater good. In some cases, exactly the same organizations that distinguished themselves at Durban I by refusing to vote against "Zionism is racism."

Here is the transcript (prepared unofficially) of the conference call between the acting assistant secretary of state and this powerful constituency that the Obama administration wants to please. As Durban II and the Human Rights Council elections fast approach, the question remains: will the administration cater to them?


On the conference call, February 27, 2009:

  • Karen Stewart, Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
  • Peter Timko, The Arab-American Institute
  • [T.] Kumar, Amnesty International
  • Paula Schriefer, Freedom House
  • Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch
  • [Jamil Dakwar], American Civil Liberties Union
  • William H. Luers, United Nations Association -USA
  • Steve Dimoff, United Nations Association - USA
  • Susan Myers, UN Foundation
  • Eric [Tars], National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
  • L. Bennett Graham, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
  • Ken [Wollack], National Democratic Institute
  • AFL-CIO Solidarity Center
  • Democracy Coalition Project
and a handful of others.

Ambassador Karen Stewart

I am the Acting Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. I'm very glad we managed to get you all on the phone. I have been asked to give you the latest in the administration's thinking on the Human Rights Council and on the Durban Review Conference. Let me make some points and then I would be happy for comments and questions.

With regard to Durban - consistent with President Obama's commitment to change direction - the US sent a strong and credible delegation to negotiate in good faith on the "Outcome Document" [ed. draft of Durban II declaration]. As part of the mission - there to assess state of play - we met with over 30 delegations and the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other interested parties. Our engagement was warmly welcomed, and we appreciated that welcome, and we also consulted with many governments and capitals on their efforts. The delegation came back and we have been discussing the process to date with them, and considering what has gone on there, and concluded that the current text is not salvageable and consequently we will not participate on further negotiations and further not participate in conference on that text. We would be prepared for an Outcome Document that was much shortened, with a constructive affirmative approach to race, tackling the challenges of racism, and not unequivocally reaffirming the Durban program of action, no references to one country or a single conflict, defamation of religions, and does not go further than Durban [ed. Declaration] on reparations for slavery. We will observe developments and in capitals to see if such a document emerges and we will reengage if such a document does emerge. I know that many of you may have favored our engagement. Understand our principled stand, key reason why we had such thorough and deliberative discussions. This was not a lightly-taken decision, but as we were closely following the negotiations, we concluded that there were far too many obstacles to overcome with several key issues - biased treatment of Israel and freedom of religions to erode freedom of expression. So we couldn't continue negotiations with this document. But we are strongly committed to fighting racism and intolerance and we are also committed to working in international fora and we welcome your input as we proceed.

Taking from that point - the Human Rights Council. After considerable deliberation the administration has decided to participate as an active observer starting Monday. We are impressed by countries that asked us to reengage, and are advocating for that position. President Obama is committed to an active and effective engagement with institutions - to play a vital role in challenges - so we look forward to building a more secure and peaceful world with our partners around the world. We share concerns that the trajectory is disturbing, and it needs to do more to help people around the world and end unbalanced criticism of Israel. We need your help on issues of freedom of expression and defamation of religions. We will do more to achieve these ends if we are part of the conversation and we participate fully at the negotiating table so we will be participating in Human Rights Council sessions. We will use this opportunity to strengthen old and forge new alliances, to engage in active participation as an observer to advance human rights in multilateral arenas. We look forward to your cooperation to make sure it is focused on the human rights concerns of our time. You heard President Obama speak on February 24 - "In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun. We know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America." We can't shun the negotiating table. We must fulfill our engagement now.

Those were lot of talking points to lay out for you. I welcome any comments.

Kumar from Amnesty International

Thank you for the briefing. Did you make any decision about running for the Human Rights Council?

Ambassador Karen Stewart

Not yet - it is still under review. So no decision yet.

William H. Luers - UNA - USA

The initial statement on Durban strikes me as being more or less sensible - if you have in it the possibility to come back with a revised statement. Are you in the business of trying to encourage a statement closer to what the US thinks appropriate or is this a final declaration?

Ambassador Karen Stewart

The message we put out there - not engaging with this text and the list. Our final message is that if a new document emerges that meets our concerns than we would reengage.

William H. Luers - UNA - USA

Do you think they will work toward a new document?

Ambassador Karen Stewart

I would say we have just been making these calls to both capitals and in Geneva and on the Hill and you and other NGO communities all through the last 24 hours and we got a variety of reactions, some who I think will be trying to see if they can change, others who think it is not possible. There is no conclusive view yet. We are sorting.

William H. Luers - UNA - USA

If you could give us encouragement to see whether the NGO community and governments could get the document closer to what we want and then have negotiations rather than saying it has to be this or nothing. The outline of things you feel are necessary. You don't require everything? Negotiating on what would help the US change its mind?

Ambassador Karen Stewart

I have to say, I hear your tone on what we are laying down - preconditions, and I'm not authorized to say we would negotiate it any way. We laid out what we are prepared to see in a new document.

Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch

We followed this closely and are concerned about the turn the administration is now taking on Durban. The talking points you have on the table blur for us two issues. It is going to be a different document - which is not on its face unachievable - but of course this is coming very late in the process and will be quite difficult and put unnecessary burdens on the process. But our biggest concern is the blending together of the problem areas that are new to this document - defamation of religions - which we agree entirely has to come out - with the US new position here, which is that we need something better than Durban and we can't have unequivocal support for Durban itself. That it cannot contain any reference to a single country or conflict, referring to the Middle East peace process and conflict is very problematic. And basically my understanding is that a group of moderate states would work with the US to draft a simpler document, but if the US is going on record saying that any reference to the Middle East conflict is unacceptable, then we're setting a standard that is unachievable. And we will give cover to governments to back out now, and that would be destructive to the Durban Review process, but even more to the Human Rights Council itself where the dynamics are obstacles, to committed administration too, and if the Durban process falls apart it will make our work at the Human Rights Council more difficult.

Ambassador Karen Stewart

I'm trying to make a note of it so we can tell the senior levels the reactions we're getting.

William H. Luers - UNA - USA

I agree with Peggy. From our standpoint a spoken willingness to negotiate and discuss how this can be improved and even - as has been suggested by Human Rights Watch - indicating the directions in which the document can be changed so that the US would be more prepared to consider participation, this is the ideal moment to change the pattern of the past, "either our road or the highway" and we shouldn't do that - we now must show a different pattern of US response to such controversial issues. If we're prepared to participate under better conditions than we see today it could be an excellent way to get countries to come together and reshape the declaration. If it's a declaration of "this way or no way" then it becomes very problematic. And could even be that we could help if we thought there is a chance that the US government would respond to a more reasonable document.

Susan Myers - UN Foundation

Following onto Ambassador Luers' remarks, I'm just curious if there is some sort of statement going out because what is in that statement could essentially box in the administration and if there is some effort to create a document more agreeable to the administration then whatever is said in coming days, it could undercut the ability of the US to reengage should there be something we could agree to.

Ambassador Karen Stewart

We are planning on making a public statement on our decisions in this area over the weekend. We wanted time to inform and consult with other countries and the Hill. I haven't seen the text of the statement, so yes we would be saying something before Monday when we turn up in Geneva.

William H. Luers - UNA - USA

Could you add that the US government is interested in discussing further the changes we think are essential? Saying that you're open to discussion is extremely important.

Ambassador Karen Stewart

I'm not making any promises. I will take that comment back but can't promise that that is going to happen.

Paula Schriefer, Freedom House

We're very encouraged that the US will participate in the upcoming session. We do think it's important to go beyond acting as an observer and seek a seat in the upcoming elections. They are typically held in May so there is not much time. It would be automatic that the US would be elected, which may not be the case at the same time next year. In 2011 there will be an official review of the Council and as you noted, for the US to be part of a credible group shaping changes to the Council, it will be important to have been on the Council for a period of time. We agree there are some real problems, but they are not problems that cannot still be fixed and the US should play an important role and increase the chances of doing so.

Ambassador Karen Stewart

Those factors are going into our review of that decision. Likelihood of successful elections.

Eric [Tars], National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty

Do you have any information about reinvigorating the inter-agency working group for facilitating the reporting process and bringing the results from the review into the US?

Ambassador Karen Stewart

I don't. The inter-agency working group on human rights - I don't specifically, we're still organizing under the new administration on how to do inter-agency groups and although I've been here for 6-7 months, I'm not always sure of the institutions set up beforehand so have to take that question.

Democracy Coalition Project

I wanted to echo what Paula was saying and encourage the US to run. We are very concerned that regions of the world are slipping back into clean slates - even in WEOG [ed. Western European and Others regional group, one of five regional groups in the UN] there are only three candidates running for three seats. It could be they're waiting for the US to run. Many have been encouraging the US to run. It's a procedural issue - to encourage competition in each region. In several regions there has been regression over the years and it is important that the US support competition and weigh in on this.

L. Bennett Graham, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

We're paying closest attention to the defamation of religions issue, and I want to be sure - and we were encouraged in the past on this issue - that you are preparing for what seems to be a major push to relook at Article 20 [ed. of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and the fears we have about lowering the threshold on what Article 20 looks at. The US has a reservation on it, but we hope you are looking for creative solutions to making sure that the defamation issue is not entrenched into a binding covenant.

Ambassador Karen Stewart

We made sure to get ideas from you on the next session of the Human Rights Council. We ensure ... defamation of religions has been a big issue for some time and so that is of great concern to us and we will be working on all ways to try and fend that off. I hope we can be creative. Any ideas you have later on we would welcome.

Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch

On defamation of religions, I didn't mention it on the Durban side but we feel strongly that there is a contradiction in the US position on the Durban Review. The key way to make sure that the current Durban text doesn't include defamation of religions is that the original Declaration didn't have that issue in it. Pakistan acknowledges this and knows they will have to give up because of that. The problem is that the US position would reopen the terms of the Durban document and once you reopen it to take out references to the Middle East then you open the door to say new things have to be put into it. To follow up on Susan Myers, while I understand the negotiated position is that you want bottom lines to have, if we expect moderate states to work on a new document then to go on record saying "those are the red lines and it is only an acceptable document that meets all those conditions" is very difficult to achieve and will put states in an unworkable position and take us off track in a way that I hope your office doesn't do.

The following table summarizes the organizations' responses to the U.S. State Department's stated conditions for participating in Durban II.

U.S. State Department stated conditions for participating in Durban II Human Rights Watch response to U.S. conditions for participating in Durban II UN Association - USA response to U.S. conditions for participating in Durban II UN Foundation response to U.S. conditions for participating in Durban II What this cabal will devise in negotiations now underway in Geneva
(1) not unequivocally reaffirming the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action Don't like any firm American bottom lines. A declaration of "this way or no way" becomes very problematic Don't like any firm American bottom lines. Could essentially box in the administration could undercut the ability of the US to reengage. ?
(2) no references to one country or a single conflict [ed. - Israel, Middle East] Disagree That it [ed. the final outcome of Durban II] cannot contain any reference to a single country or conflict, referring to the Middle East peace process and conflict is very problematic. And basically my understanding is that a group of moderate states would work with the US to draft a simpler document, but if the US is going on record saying that any reference to the Middle East conflict is unacceptable, then we're setting a standard that is unachievable. The problem is that the US position would reopen the terms of the Durban document and once you reopen it to take out references to the Middle East...[it] is very difficult to achieve and will put states in an unworkable position. Disagree I agree with Peggy [ed. Human Rights Watch]... We now must show a different pattern of U.S. response to such controversial issues.Don't like any firm American bottom lines. A declaration of "this way or no way" becomes very problematic. Don't like any firm American bottom lines. Could essentially box in the administration could undercut the ability of the US to reengage. ?
(3) "defamation of religions" - [ed. concept must be taken out] Agree take out. Don't like any firm American bottom lines. A declaration of "this way or no way" becomes very problematic. Don't like any firm American bottom lines. Could essentially box in the administration could undercut the ability of the US to reengage. ?
(4) not go further than the Durban Declaration on reparations for slavery Don't like any firm American bottom lines. A declaration of "this way or no way" becomes very problematic. Don't like any firm American bottom lines. Could essentially box in the administration could undercut the ability of the US to reengage. ?

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.