Durban Watch

Durban II

EYEontheUN ALERT - March 17, 2009

Obama Should Denounce Durban II

Under the growing threat of a boycott by the United States and European countries, negotiators planning the U.N.'s Durban II "anti-racism" conference made a new move in Geneva today. They released a modified version of a draft declaration that is expected to be adopted at the April melée. The draft jettisons much of the extra baggage Islamic states had piled on throughout the 10-month drafting process (for the sole purpose of "compromising" at the end). The improvements, however, do not meet the minimal conditions that the Obama administration delineated for U.S. participation. It is time to end the equivocation and get out.

Durban II represents a global showdown on the ideological battlefield between Democrats and anti-Democrats, between tolerance and intolerance. For years, the worst abusers of human rights have commandeered U.N. vehicles to trample rights and freedoms. Given the close relationship between spewing hatred and reaping violence--which the first Durban Declaration adopted on Sept. 8, 2001, made abundantly clear--the stakes are high.

Two weeks ago, the Obama administration set out four conditions for U.S. participation in Durban II. The new version of the Durban II declaration must be: "shorter," "not reaffirm in toto the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration," "not single out any one country or conflict" and "not embrace the troubling concept of "defamation of religion." On some of these counts, the document makes substantial changes. It is somewhat shorter, removes grotesque allegations like calling Israel an apartheid state and deletes the words "defamation of religions."

But most important, it refuses to disavow the 2001 Declaration. On the contrary, it "Reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) as it was adopted at the World Conference against Racism ... in 2001." That declaration says Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism--with Israel the only U.N. state found guilty of racism. And though today's draft divides provisions into the negotiable and non-negotiable, it announces that reaffirming Durban I is text which does not "remain to be negotiated."

This "new and improved" document, therefore, breaches President Obama's key conditions. It "reaffirms in toto the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration." In so doing, it does not satisfy the demand that no country or conflict be singled out. Unsurprisingly, behind the scenes, Palestinian negotiators in Geneva are expressing satisfaction with today's result.

For Americans, to reaffirm the Durban Declaration is to affirm precisely what our government rejected on Sept. 4, 2001, when the United States--led by Congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos--walked out from Durban I in disgust.

The new draft is a textbook example of diplomatic double-talk. Diplomats often couch objectionable outcomes in superficially unobjectionable language, using a tool that lawyers call "incorporation by reference." Don't repeat the offensive words in the new document; just include them by referring to another document where they can be found--and which most people won't bother to read.

In plain language, here is exactly what it means to reaffirm the DDPA and its claim that Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism.

For one, reaffirming the Durban document will set the priorities of the U.N. human rights system. As U.N. High Commissioner Navi Pillay--who is also the Secretary-General of Durban II--proclaimed earlier this month: "The focus on victims is the cornerstone of OHCHR's [Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights] work. The office pays particular attention to the protection of the groups of victims identified in the DDPA." Among them, of course, the alleged victims of the diabolical Israeli state.

Second, Durban I went forth and multiplied. The DDPA spawned: the Intergovernmental Working Group on the effective implementation of the DDPA, the Independent Eminent Experts Group, the Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards and the Preparatory Committee of the Durban Review Conference and its working groups. In addition, U.N. High Commissioner Pillay has promised: "I will take the lead in encouraging mainstreaming of the implementation of the DDPA in the work of all relevant United Nations entities." In this case, mainstreaming is a U.N. euphemism for ensuring the cancer spreads to all parts of the body politic.

Driving the Durban committee dealing with "complementary standards" is the game plan of Islamic U.N. member states. They argue that existing standards on racial discrimination and related intolerance--which they ignore in practice--have normative gaps. What kind of gaps? Insufficient attention to the defamation of religions--Islam in particular.

There has been some push-back from other states on the concept of "defamation of religion," since Islamic governments would be both judge and jury on what counts as defamation. So this latest version of the Durban II declaration focuses on "incitement to hatred of religious communities." It "calls upon states ... to declare illegal and prohibit by law all organizations which ... attempt to justify or promote national, racial and religious hatred and discrimination in any form ..." It calls for more U.N. "workshops" on "the prohibition of incitement with a view to remedy any possible substantive or implementation gaps." It also insists that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination ... shall be prohibited by law ... and that these prohibitions are consistent with freedom of opinion and expression."

The United States has formal legal reservations to U.N. treaties that attempt to impose fewer limits on free speech than Durban II. Those reservations insist upon the primacy of stronger American constitutional protections. Signing on to anything looking like this Durban II declaration would therefore be inconsistent with American law.

Tuesday's development sent diplomats in Geneva scurrying off in different directions. The Netherlands decided to play hardball in the defense of democracy. The Dutch took the U.S. conditions seriously and publicly disseminated a complete alternative text two pages long in stark contrast to the U.N.'s 17-page draft. The Dutch draft is direct; it highlights in plain language that "freedom of expression is a cornerstone of our fight against racism;" it includes protection for discrimination against sexual orientation; and it does not reaffirm Durban I.

Some members of the EU were not pleased. The French and the Germans are insisting the European Union act with one voice and are intent on dragging the Dutch back into the fold. The Italians have gone silent after announcing last week they were going to boycott, apparently succumbing to demands for European unity. American state officials are busy drafting alternative texts behind the scenes despite the pretense of non-participation. NGOs are pressuring the Obama administration not to leave for any reason. The Australians have been apparently struck dumb until President Obama tells them what he'll do. The Palestinians are threatening to make the draft a lot worse if "reaffirming the Durban I Declaration" is removed. The secretary-general of the Conference Navi Pillay--a native of Durban who promised the mayor to rescue the city's good name--is helping Islamic states fight the forces that are serious about combating racism.

As for human rights? What does that have to do with anything? This is the U.N.

This article, by Anne Bayefsky, originally appeared in Forbes.