Durban Watch

Durban II

EYEontheUN ALERT - February 19, 2009

U.S. Durban II Double-Cross

President Obama had been warned to avoid having anything to do with the U.N.'s Durban II "anti-racism" conference this year. The U.S. walked out of the 2001 Durban I conference because it proved to be a U.N.-sanctioned platform for anti-Semitism. Its final Declaration singled out Israel for criticism, accusing the country of racism.

Ignoring these warnings, the U.S. sent a seven-person delegation to a preparatory meeting in Geneva this week - without asking anything of conference sponsors in return. The State Department explained the decision as an effort "to try to change the direction in which the Review Conference is heading." But the delegation's behavior during the week, which began by expressing "strong reservations about a document singling out Israel for criticism," more closely resembles a double-cross.

On Wednesday, the European Union proposed a provision for the final document - which is to be adopted formally at the Conference itself in April - on the Holocaust. The EU had attempted to add a reference to the Holocaust at the last preparatory meeting (in January), which the U.S. did not attend. But Iran and Syria had objected. The EU proposal was therefore "bracketed" - entered into the items-in-dispute category. Both Syria and Iran had claimed there weren't enough facts about the Holocaust to warrant a definitive denunciation. Iran had also complained that the proposal was in the wrong section.

So the EU tried again, and this time the American delegation was present. Here is how the discussion went:

    European Union: We have a new proposal under the section on education and awareness-raising that would recall the U.N. General Assembly resolution on the remembrance of the Holocaust. It would read:

    Urges states to raise awareness and to implement U.N. General Assembly resolutions 60/7 and 61/255 which inter alia observes that the remembrance of the Holocaust is critical to prevent further acts of genocide, condemns without reservation any denial of the Holocaust and urges all states to reject denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full, or in part, or any activities to this end.

    Iran: My delegation thinks that this is an inappropriate place to incorporate this new paragraph, so we request that this new paragraph be put in brackets.

    Chair: Is there any delegation wishing to comment on this new proposal by the European Union? It doesn't seem the case. We move on.

Since the operating principle is consensus, this put the Holocaust provision in dispute. But the American delegation chose not to go on the record strongly supporting the EU's proposal, as it had on other items. Not a peep came from the "change the direction in which the Review Conference is heading" folks.

Here's an even more troubling example, this time involving a paragraph the Palestinian delegation proposed Tuesday in the presence of the American representatives:

    Palestine: I would like to propose a new paragraph which reads as follows:

    Calls for an end of all actions violating international human rights and humanitarian law, the respect for the principle of self-determination and an end of all suffering. Calls also for implementation of international legal obligations, including the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the wall, and the international protection of the Palestinian people throughout the occupied Palestinian territory.

    Chair: Now let's move on to paragraph . . .

Dead silence again, despite the fact that an objection could have made a real difference by putting the paragraph unequivocally in dispute. Everybody knew that there was no other country-specific provision in the 250-paragraph-plus document. Yet there were no comments objecting to the idea of singling out Israel in an anti-racism manifesto, and no call for a paragraph decrying racism in any other state.

Instead, the Palestinian and EU delegations have confirmed that in a backroom deal, the EU agreed ahead of time not to object. Members of the American delegation might not have known of the arrangement in advance (highly unlikely), but regardless, they got tongue-tied when it mattered. The new paragraph is scheduled to appear in a section called "Identification of further concrete measures and initiatives at all levels for combating and eliminating all manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance . . ." with the subtitle "General provisions on victims and grounds of discrimination."

In other words, it didn't take President Obama's delegation two days before it sat in silence while Israel was singled out as guilty of racism - again.

Why would the delegation behave this way? The idea, seemingly, is to make it appear to an American audience that the Conference's prospects are improving, that there are no intense disagreements. Just business as usual at the U.N., where multilateral engagement is always a force for good. The less said by the United States, the smoother multilateralism proceeds.

A pistol-whipped United States may be endearing for U.N. human-rights "authorities," like the meeting's very active Iranian vice-chair. It may not be quite so appealing to Americans.

The pace of the preparatory meetings also suggests an intent to keep real conflicts out of the public eye. Only 15 percent of the proposed text has so far been adopted, and 30 percent of the proposals have never been reviewed. Most of the remaining preparatory meetings are not scheduled until April, just prior to the actual conference.

What is more visible is that the U.S. has little to gain for itself - or for global human rights - from participating. Under the consensus rule, many important suggestions have gone unadopted. A proposal to condemn human-rights violations based on sexual orientation ran into immediate objections from South Africa, Syria, Algeria, Iran, Botswana, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Morocco, Holy See, Libya, Egypt, and China. Pakistan said no to a provision that sought to make violence against women and children a criminal offence. Iran balked at a call for states to promote gender equality, and at a suggestion to ensure that the concept of multiculturalism is not used to infringe human rights.

U.S. strategy is evidently to announce the United States participated actively in the planning session, made proposals, and was given a warm welcome. Continuing efforts to improve the final result, it will be argued, are therefore warranted. The pace is sufficiently slow that this refrain will be repeated until it is so late in the day that walking out would cause a major diplomatic furor, which will in turn be used to justify attendance at the Conference itself. Obama's hunger for engagement, in and of itself, is apparently his first priority. Israel is way down on the list and and American first principles are now subject to discussion.

By contrast, what President Obama could have done was to explain to the American public that Durban II is a continuation of Durban I. Its purpose is to foster the implementation of Durban I's Declaration and, at a minimum, to reaffirm it. Because of the Durban I Declaration's treatment of Israel – a modern form of anti-Semitism – alone, the United States should continue to reject it. Not to mention the multiplicity of attacks on basics like free speech, equality, liberty, and security that are still in the Durban II draft.

It should have been that simple. But the behavior of the United States delegation gives every indication that the pretense of change just around the corner will trump the obligation to give Americans the straight goods.

This article first appeared in National Review Online.