Sound Words on Durban

Two pieces yesterday on the upcoming Durban Review Conference — from which the Obama Administration elected to withdraw the other week — capture some valid points on both sides of the debate as whether the United States should or should not have taken the option of the boycott.

This LA Times editorial rather rashly compares Obama’s diplomacy to Bush’s, based solely on their respective Durban decisions. It’s oversimplistic calculation is that Obama’s decision not to attend makes him a “bigger spoilsport” or “more intransigent” than Bush, who sent a low-level delegation to the first Durban anti-racism conference, only to call it back a few days in (the circumstances are different, after all, and Bush had far more time to prepare). Nonetheless, the editorial’s bottom line is astute: if you don’t even show up, you can’t possibly win — and diplomacy will almost certainly lose.

The question isn’t whether the Obama administration should attempt to expunge such [anti-Israel] passages, but whether it would be more successful in doing so by continuing to attend the preparatory sessions and going to the conference, or by boycotting it. Some argue that the latter is best because it sends a signal that the U.S. finds the event, and the U.N. Human Rights Council sponsoring it, to be illegitimate. But that’s kind of like protesting an election by refusing to vote: Your side might lose as a result. The final document will be approved by consensus, meaning that the U.S. could make a big difference simply by showing up and sticking to its principles.

And on the other hand, in this Guardian piece, Benjamin Pogrund writes from the interesting perspective of a member of the Israeli delegation that walked out with the United States in 2001. Refreshingly, his is not one of those shrill voices deaf to the importance, benefits, and very real difficulties of an anti-racism conference. His moderate conclusion:

The UN’s chief human rights official, Navi Pillay, is understandably urging all states to attend next month. She warns that the failure of Durban 2 could damage human rights work for years to come. But the omens are not good.

And the omens are less good, I would argue, without the participation of the United States, Canada, Italy, and yes, even Israel; all are vibrant human rights defenders, and their absence from the table will only further skew the “election” in Geneva in April to the extremists.

Get occasional updates from UN Dispatch

* indicates required

Our free service for global affairs professionals

  • Want to learn more?