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Fanning the Flames of Racism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Since racial hatred has animated some of the worst atrocities in history, one would think that an opportunity for nations to come together and seek solutions to racial tensions would be welcomed.

Think again.

The upcoming United Nations Durban Review Conference in Durban, South Africa—billed as an international effort to achieve racial reconciliation—is likely to make a mockery of any bona fide attempt to overcome racial discrimination.

The Conference, scheduled for 2009, will review the international progress made in response to the "Durban Declaration and Programme of Action" released by the first Durban conference in 2001. This earlier conference was initially billed as an attempt to bring together representatives from fifty-three nations in order to proclaim the equality of all men and to condemn racial hatred and discrimination around the world. Rather than producing a clear statement against racism, however, the conference crumbled under the weight of the racist impulses of the countries involved.

Among those countries attending the 2001 conference were China, Columbia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Two of these countries (Syria and Cuba) are on the U.S. State Department's top ten list of worst human rights violators, and China was only just dropped from the list in 2008. It became clear early on that the first Durban conference would not achieve any great leap forward in racial equality. The United States and Israel quickly saw that they were going to be the scapegoats of the conference, as delegates from the Middle East sought to condemn Zionism and the Western slave trade as the prime examples of racism in human history. Not surprisingly, the United States and Israel withdrew their delegations a few days into the conference.

Then Secretary of State Colin Powell explained the withdrawal of the U.S. delegation: "I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism'; or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world, Israel, for censure and abuse." The lofty goals of the conference were quickly reduced to unilateral finger-pointing and name calling.

The tone of the final declaration of the conference was edited to remove direct condemnations of Zionism, but its unevenness is still evident. Anti-semitism is only mentioned twice in the document, and both times it is grouped next to "Islamaphobia," suggesting that a fear of Islam has the same historical significance as the persecutions suffered by the Jewish people. Moreover, one of the worst cases of racial hatred in human history, the Holocaust, was only referenced once in the document, without commentary or explanation.

These brief references to anti-semitism would perhaps be adequate if the Declaration and Programme of Action were not over sixty pages long and did not go on for innumerable pages about the injustices suffered by Africans, migrants, and indigenous peoples. These injustices are real and every country needs to take responsibility for the wrongs it has done, but pointing to one set of injustices while essentially ignoring others is simply a variant of the very racism that the declaration was intended to end.

The reality is that many countries—particularly those in the Middle East—are not interested in condemning anti-semitism, because their own people persist in their hatred of Israel. These are countries where many still deny that the Holocaust ever occurred.

The Durban Declaration also neglected to make any mention of racial genocide. The word "genocide" is only used six times in the document, and no specific cases of genocide are ever discussed. Some of the worst cases of racial hatred in the past century involved massive genocide, including the millions of Jews slaughtered by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust, the ethnic genocide waged by the Bosnian Serbs, and the murder of nearly one million Tutsi people by the Hutu militia in Rwanda. Refusing to address these events and others like them erased the credibility of the Durban conference.

Racism has plagued the history of every country at some point in time, and admitting prior wrongs is a good first step towards reconciliation. An international declaration of the equal rights of all men, regardless of race, is an admirable goal, but achievement of that goal requires participating countries to admit their past mistakes, prevent further discrimination, and foster racial equality within their own borders.

Some of the recommendations of Durban I were beneficial. The Declaration recommended that individual States educate their populace about the natural equality of all men and the rights of all to life, property, and freedom. The Programme of Action included an encouragement to all States to involve poorer and struggling countries in the world economy. These recommendations were good, yet the conference ultimately failed because not all of the delegations took seriously the past injustices they had committed. They refused to admit their own wrongs and diverted the focus of the conference to a small portion of the timeline of history.

As the Durban review conference (or "Durban II") approaches, many are wondering whether the United States will participate at all. The U.S. voted against holding the review conference, but has not yet taken an official stance on whether or not it will attend the proceedings. Since the conference will take place after a new President is elected, the current administration is likely to leave that decision to its successor, but hope that Durban II will be any different from the first conference is practically nonexistent. Canada and Israel have already stated that they will boycott the proceedings, because they are convinced that the conference will be another exercise in anti-Israel propaganda.

Casting a further shadow over Durban II is the new U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) which is planning the conference. Among the members of the council are traditional human rights violators China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia. The HRC has been a disappointment since its inception in 2006. Its stated purpose is to "[promote] universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all" and to "address situations of violations of human rights." Yet, as Brett D. Schaefer explains in his Heritage Foundation piece, "While the council has passed relatively mild condemnations of Sudan and Burma, it has saved its strongest criticism for Israel, condemning it in 19 separate decisions and resolutions." All signs so far indicate that Durban II will be no better than Durban I.

In a New York Times opinion article, released shortly after the United States and Israel walked out of the first Durban conference, author Bob Herbert argues that "the conference was doomed to irrelevance from its conception." Herbert believes that the problems of intolerance "are much too big and much too complex and intractable to be seriously addressed by a U.N. conference." Such pessimism is understandable, yet there is a place for international condemnations of racial hatred. Such statements may not have the teeth of their own international enforcement mechanism, but they can serve as moral support for individual nations who wish to pressure an abusive nation to change its policies. The importance of such proclamations should not be underestimated.

A well-framed international condemnation of racism has the potential to transform the global discussion on race and discrimination. Human rights abusers may yet dominate this upcoming conference, but the United States and other western countries should not relent in their efforts to overcome racial hatred. Racial hatred is a great evil, and it has adversely affected virtually all countries at one time or another. All countries ought to acknowledge their own shortcomings as we work to overcome racial hatred at home and around the world.

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