Deeply Dismayed about Durban II

Back in 2001 I had one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life when I traveled to Kwa-Zululand in Azania–South Africa. There, on the Indian Ocean is Durban, and there, for two weeks, people of the world gathered to successfully address one of the world’s most vexing problems. It was the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

Thanks to heroic efforts by the African Diaspora Group of diplomats and committed Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO), the conference reached a monumental consensus, declaring (among other important decisions) the European Trans-Atlantic slave trade a “crime against humanity.” Together, the nations of the world reached that consensus.

There’s just one caveat however: by the time the final document was approved, after an all-night negotiating session on the final day of the meeting, the United States had already pulled out of the conference, declaring that the objective of ending racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance was not helped by the meeting’s insistence on concentrating on “the past,” rather than looking toward the future.

Prominently, and by their own insistence, world attention was focused on otherwise unheard of suffering people. The discrimination faced by tens of millions of India’s Dalit people–otherwise known as the “untouchables;” the suffering a centuries of persecution of Europe’s Roma people–otherwise known as the “Gypsies”–are classic examples of previously little-known problems which were brought to light in Durban.

In 2001, I thought the United States missed a golden opportunity to lead the world by example. This country which had enslaved tens of millions of Africans for 400 years, robbing them of their names, their language, their religion, their culture, could have sent a high level delegation led by Secretary of State (Foreign Minister) Colin Powell, an African American who could have said that the U.S. proved that even as problems remain in this country, some of the problems of racism and intolerance can be overcome. But no.

Now, as the Durban Review Conference–nicknamed Durban II–convened April 20 in Geneva, Switzerland, the United States has chosen to boycott that conference altogether, despite the fact that even more progress has been made here, with the election of Pres. Barack Hussein Obama, the first Black man to reach that office. Sadly, another missed golden opportunity.

In addition, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand, also announced their withdrawal, France said it would attend but would immediately withdraw in protest, while Israel and Canada withdrew months ago.

The reason this time? A press release from the State Department noted that while the final draft declaration to be adopted at the close of the conference had been amended to remove direct references to Israel, it still contained unacceptable indirect hostility toward the Jewish state. Washington is also unhappy with language in the declaration suggesting it is a crime to criticize Islam (still wondering if Pres. Obama is secretly a Muslim?).

Part of the agenda at Durban II was a recently passed resolution entitled “Combating Defamation of Religions.” The resolution, among other things, “[s]tresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular.” Well, of course the U.S., Israel, much of Western Europe, and New Zealand had to boycott that. What open-minded anti-racist could support that kind of dangerous language?

“We are deeply dismayed by the decision to boycott the Durban Review Conference, even after the final Outcome Statement was rewritten to accommodate the administration’s concerns,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and members of the CBC Taskforce on Foreign Relations said in a statement.

“This decision is inconsistent with the administration’s policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with, expressed by President Obama during the G20 and on other recent occasions. The United States has a unique experience and history of combating racism and intolerance,” the statement continued. Duh.

“By boycotting Durban, the U.S. is making it more difficult for it to play a leadership role on UN Human Rights Council as it states it plans to do. This is a missed opportunity, plain and simple, said the statement. A missed “golden opportunity,” I might add plain and simple.

“Instead, the administration opted to boycott the conference, a decision that does not advance the cause of combating racism and intolerance, but rather sets the cause back,” the CBC statement said.

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