The Obama administration has erred in its decision to skip this week’s United Nations Durban Review Conference that starts today. The anti-racism summit is a follow-up to the 2001 World Summit against Racism in Durban, South Africa. This week’s conference would have been an excellent opportunity to highlight our nation’s new attitude toward the world community and demonstrate that we are willing to engage on even the most controversial of subjects, including the Middle East and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, the White House opted to play it safe and simply not show up. It is a contradiction of this President’s pre-election claim of willing to engage even those nations with which we do not agree.
The decision to forego the Geneva conference is disappointing given a couple of positive moves the administration made last week toward constructing a new international dialogue. The first was the revelation by the Department of Justice of the extent to which torture was used during interrogations of terrorist suspects during the Bush administration. The second was President Obama’s outreach to Cuba and his signaling that he was prepared to develop a different relationship with the Castro government than previous White House administrations. In both instances, the administration sent positive signals that it would not be “business as usual” in how we conduct ourselves as a global citizen. Then came the decision to skip the Geneva conference and much of that good will is apt to be wasted.
Why is Geneva important? For decades, the United States has avoided fully embracing international human rights standards while routinely criticizing the practices of other nations. The late scholar and N.A.A.C.P founder Dr. W.E.B. DuBois saw this contradiction and wanted to raise our nation’s culpability before the United Nations. Though rebuffed, it was probably the first time an American citizen sought to call the country to task for its shortcomings before the court of world opinion. It is one of the reasons why the administration’s denouncement of torture was refreshing. For once, it seemed as though this nation was willing to take responsibility for errant behavior and demonstrate leadership for the rest of the world. It is high time that our practices aligned with our rhetoric.
The apparent obstacle to our nation’s participation is the reaffirmation of the Durban conference’s agenda and the perception that it seeks to condemn Israel. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay sought to put such concerns to rest in a statement released on the Sunday before the start of the conference. She noted that “the draft outcome clearly states that ‘the Holocaust must never be forgotten’ and deplores all forms of racism including Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism.” Pillay said further, “I fail to see why, given that the Middle East is not mentioned in this document, that politics related to the Middle East continues to intrude into the process.”
At a time when unprecedented measures should be pursued to mediate differences, our nation is opting to sit on the sidelines in an important meeting to discuss human rights issues. The High Commissioner is right in expressing her disappointment and bewilderment with the decision of the Obama administration to take a rain check on human rights. It suggests that we will play only when we set the rules, and have little interest in an open dialogue not bound by conditions. Our alliance with Israel is no secret. However, our interests in the Middle East are, or should be, much larger than what is advanced or pronounced by the Israeli government. If this administration is serious about resolving the Middle East conflict it needs to lay down the conditions for that engagement in such a way that it does not compromise our integrity or forestall an opportunity to bring wavering Arab nations to the table.
By the simple fact of who he is, the burden is that much greater on President Obama to set a different table for world leaders to gather around. The resounding enthusiasm from around the world for his election was not simply driven by his personality or his breaking a racial barrier; it was because the world sensed that he was serious when he promoted “change” as his mantra. Now is not the time to retreat.