Why the US will boycott global racism conference

A meeting to judge progress on racism is likely to be captive to Israeli-Palestinian and Islamic defamation issues.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Protesters in Geneva hold a banner that reads: 'United against Racism in Switzerland and in the world.' Protests this weekend come ahead of the UN world conference on racism.

The first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was all but derailed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage.

The second global meeting against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, which starts Monday, is on shaky ground over the same question. Over the weekend, the United States and the Netherlands pulled their delegations. Australia, Israel, Canada, Sweden and Italy have said they also may boycott the UN forum in Geneva.

The week-long event is also in trouble over the issue of religious defamation, specifically the portrayal of Islam in Western nations.

The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is expected to accuse the West of Islamophobia and press to restrict criticism of Islam. If this happens, it may upstage discussion of all other topics.

At the 2001 conference, the fight over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was racist often drowned out grievances from minorities such as the Roma of Europe, the "untouchables" of India, and the indigenous tribes of South America.

Ayca Ariyoruk, a senior associate at the United Nations Association, a pro-UN think tank, says it will be up to the OIC to "resist the temptation to bring up issues that have proven to be very divisive." A citizen of Turkey, as is the OIC secretary-general, she adds, "This conference needs to focus on what can unite countries, not divide them."

Dutch try to save the meeting

In March, with some European nations mulling over a boycott, the Dutch put forward a draft of the conference declaration that removed direct references to Israel. It also removed language condemning religious defamation, language that some saw as an imposition on free speech.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay welcomed the revisions, noting that despite "sustained and sometimes distorted criticisms" of the Durban process, states should "refrain from taking narrow politicized or polemical stances."

The OIC, for its part, has stated that the five-day Durban review conference "should not be a politically motivated process or an anti-Semitic exercise" but "an inclusive process, where all stakeholders should be free to address the real and serious challenges of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia."

Nevertheless, some observers expect the OIC to advance its own agenda.

"I don't think they'll be able to resist grandstanding in that type of spotlight, but whether they're successful in amending the final document is another story," says Brett Schaefer, an analyst with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

The original conference in Durban is mostly remembered for the impassioned nongovernmental organization forum that preceded the diplomatic gathering. Some pro-­Palestinian supporters passed out fliers containing a photograph of Hitler captioned, "What if I had won? There would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed." Thousands of NGO delegates approved a document that branded Israel guilty of genocide, apartheid, and other war crimes.

Then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson found the forum recommendations so toxic she refused to "forward" them on to the governments.

Often forgotten is the fact that the gathered diplomats stripped out the most incendiary anti-Israel language. Yet the final document, under the heading "Victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance" did cite "the plight of the Palestinian people." In the context of an antiracism proclamation, Israel's defenders say this implied racism, and the text identified no other state.

In a statement released Saturday, the US State Department cited the 2001 Durban text in explaining its withdrawal from this conference. That document "singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," it said. And since the draft document for this meeting is based on the previous meeting's, the US could not participate.

Defamation of Islam?

Meanwhile, Islamic concerns have grown. First came post-9/11 "ethnic profiling"; then the 2005 Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. Some Muslim clerics rallied followers to stage anti-Western protests that turned violent. In what some see as a sign of what will happen at the racism conference, in late March the UN Human Rights Council approved a Pakistan-sponsored resolution that condemned "defamation of religions," citing Islam and the cartoon firestorm.

And pro-Israel activists say this time they're better prepared. They'll bring out some of the most visible defenders of Israel, such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz. Plus, they'll co-sponsor a "Conference Against Racism, Discrimination, and Persecution," which will include speakers such as Martin Luther King III and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. The goal is to project a more positive image of the Jewish state, says one Israeli involved.

"Durban went far beyond legitimate criticism, as terms like racist, apartheid, and 'the new South Africa' created this feeling in Israel that the world is against us," says Gerald Steinberg, executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor. "If that impact can be reversed in Geneva, it could lead to greater willingness among Israelis to interact with the UN."

Though the recent war in Gaza fueled sympathy for Palestinians, some question whether or not racism plays a role in that struggle. To supporters of Palestinians, there's no doubt. "We all believe racism and racial discrimination, not just ideology, is what drives Israeli policy and practices," says Ingrid Gassner Jaradat, director of the Bethlehem-based BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.

"Since people here feel a lot of similarities with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, one would expect that at an antiracism conference, Israel would be on the agenda."

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