Obama Caves to Right-wing in Boycotting UN Anti-Racism Conference

boycotting the United Nations conference on racism, the Obama
administration demonstrated that just because an African American can
be elected president doesn't mean the United States will be any more
committed than the Bush administration in fighting global racism.
Rejecting calls by liberal Democratic members of Congress, leading
human rights groups, Pope Benedict XVI, and most of the international
community to participate, the Obama administration instead gave into
pressure by Congressional hawks and other anti-UN forces by joining a
handful of other nations refusing to participate in the historic

The five-day conference, which is taking place this week in Geneva,
assessed international progress in fighting racism and xenophobia since
the UN's first conference in Durban, South Africa eight years ago. The
Bush administration withdrew from that gathering, but there had been
hope the Obama administration wouldn't continue its predecessor's
ideology-driven opposition to the UN and its human rights agenda.

With pressure from the United States and some other countries, the
draft declaration prepared for this year's conference dropped a call to
ban "defamation of religion," which raised concerns regarding
restricting free speech, as well as any references to Israel and
Palestine. State Department spokesperson Robert Wood acknowledged that
the draft was "significantly improved," and that the United States was
"deeply grateful" that requested changes had been made. Yet he
announced the United States would boycott the conference anyway because
the document reaffirmed the final declaration of the 2001 meeting in
Durban right-wing critics had labeled "anti-Israel."


Despite ongoing claims to the contrary by various right-wing
pundits, however, the final document didn't contain any anti-Israel
statements or language equating Zionism with racism. Efforts by some
participating states to include that and similar objectionable language
were defeated.

Indeed, the only mention of Israel in the final 61-page document was as follows:

We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under
foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the
Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an
independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States
in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support
the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion; We call for a
just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all
peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally
recognized human rights, and security.

Why would the Obama administration find such a statement so
reprehensible that it would boycott a conference whose focus isn't on
Israel, but on ending racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and
related intolerances? Since the document explicitly recognizes Israel's
right to security, the Obama administration apparently objects to its
formal recognition that Palestinians are under foreign occupation, and
that they have a right to self-determination and statehood. Yet
virtually the entire international community - including the United
Nations, the World Court and a broad consensus of legal scholars -
recognizes this reality.

According to the State Department, the Obama administration believes
the 2001 declaration "prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in
negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians." In other words, it
appears the Obama administration believes that assuming the
Palestinians' right to self-determination and statehood, and calling
for a Middle East in which all peoples "shall coexist and enjoy
equality, justice and international recognized human rights, and
security" should not be givens.

During the more than 15 years of these U.S.-facilitated
negotiations, the Palestinians have seen illegal Israeli settlements on
the West Bank more than double, their freedom of movement restricted,
their human rights deteriorate, and their social and economic standards
plummet. Moreover, the new Israel government with which the
Palestinians need to negotiate is led by a coalition of far right-wing
parties that have refused to acknowledge Palestinian rights, and have
threatened further war against its neighbors. Its foreign minister is
an outspoken anti-Arab racist who has proposed the ethnic cleansing of
the Palestinian population in Israel and the occupied territories.

Yet the Obama administration insists that rather than the
international community reiterating the longstanding international
legal principle of the right to self-determination, the Palestinians'
future should instead be placed on the bargaining table under an
ongoing U.S.-led "peace process," which has thus far only worsened
their suffering.

Addressing Anti-Semitism

Legitimate concerns about Israeli policies regularly appear at
international forums sponsored by the United Nations. But they have
sometimes been contaminated by sweeping statements condemning the state
of Israel itself, and portraying some of the most racist and
chauvinistic aspects of Zionism as representative of Jewish nationalism
as a whole. However, these kinds of discriminatory resolutions have
been declining in recent years, as countries have become more willing
to recognize that, while some governments may pursue racist policies,
no state should be singled out as inherently racist in and of itself.
Efforts by anti-Israel delegations at the 2001 anti-racism conference
in Durban were defeated and weren't considered a realistic threat at
the Geneva Conference either. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's
claim that Israel was a "racist state" during a speech on the opening
day of this year's conference was not well-received, prompting many
delegates to walk out in protest.

Still, even some of the more reasonable resolutions critical of
Israel proposed at the 2001 conference distracted attention from the
broader issues at stake. Such efforts often result in dividing Jews -
themselves a historically oppressed people - from their natural allies
among people of color. Furthermore, other governments that have as bad
or even more racist policies than Israel have not been subjected to as
much attention at such conferences.

The Israeli government has been able to inflict its racist policies
on neighboring Arab populations largely as a result of the
unconditional diplomatic, economic, and military support of the United
States. Any country with a history of war with its neighbors that found
itself effectively immune from sanctions, or any other negative
repercussions for violating international norms, would likely behave
the same way, regardless of whether it were Jewish, "Zionist," or
anything else. Were it not for the United States providing Israel with
protection from international pressure to end its illegal occupation
and colonization of neighboring lands, the "just, comprehensive and
lasting peace" called for in the 2001 declaration the Obama
administration apparently finds so objectionable could have by now been
a reality.

However legitimate some of the concerns regarding anti-Semitism at
international forums, nothing in the final 2001 declaration at Durban -
the alleged reason for the U.S. boycott this year - appears to have
been even remotely anti-Semitic. Indeed, the final declaration states:

We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten...We recognize
with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in
various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and
violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against
Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities...We condemn the persistence and
resurgence of neo-Nazism, neo-Fascism and violent nationalist
ideologies based on racial or national prejudice, and state that these
phenomena can never be justified in any instance or in any

Even if the 2001 declaration was as problematic as the Obama
administration depicted it, participation in this year's conference
would not have implied an endorsement of every single phrase of a
lengthy and wide-ranging declaration hammered together by
representatives of more than 200 governments.

Reaction to the Decision

The Congressional Black Caucus, which strongly encouraged U.S.
participation in the international meeting, stated that it was "deeply
dismayed" by Obama's decision. "Had the United States sent a high-level
delegation reflecting the richness and diversity of our country, it
would have sent a powerful message to the world that we're ready to
lead by example," the statement reads. "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

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) observed how the U.S. decision to boycott
the conference was "inconsistent with the administration's policy of
engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with." She
added that "the United States 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."

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch noted how the meeting would
lack the diplomatic gravitas it deserved as a result of Washington's
absence. "For us it's extremely disappointing and it's a missed
opportunity, really, for the United States," she said. Other human
rights groups, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,
also expressed their disappointment.

By contrast, the right wing applauded Obama's decision. A bipartisan
group of congressional hawks, which pressured Obama to boycott the
conference, sent him an open letter applauding Obama's decision. The
letter claims that the meeting "undermines freedom of expression and is
tainted by an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic agenda that questions the
legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state." The effort was led by such
influential members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as Ron Klein
(D-FL), Mike Pence (R-IN), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Eliot Engel (D-NY),
and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (D-FL), as well as Henry Waxman (D-CA),
chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, all of
whom previously attacked the United Nations, the World Court, and
various human rights groups for challenging certain U.S. and Israeli

By accepting the recommendation of these congressional militarists
and unilateralists to boycott the conference, while rejecting calls to
participate by the Black Caucus, reputable human rights groups, UN
officials, and world religious leaders, Obama has given the clearest
indication yet as to who he will listen to in determining how his
administration approaches the United Nations and other international
initiatives in support for human rights.

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