[See here and here for further reading.]
The movement to boycott the ‘Durban II’ Review Conference on racism appears to be gathering pace. Not only have the US, Israel, Canada and Italy decided not to attend, but now Sweden, The Netherlands and Australia have joined them.
According to Stephen Smith, Australia’s Foreign Minister:
“The 2001 Declaration [at the first conference on racism at Durban] singled out Israel and the Middle East. Australia expressed strong concerns about this at the time… Regrettably, we cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views.”
Holland’s Foreign Minister meanwhile cites attempts made, primarily by Islamic states, to use the conference to prioritise religious tradition above human rights and attack freedom of speech.
It is likely that other Western states, including Germany, will join the boycott movement. It has been argued that Western states should attend the conference and use their influence in a positive way. However, in this instance it seems most countries see it as more effective to deny any legitimacy to those in the international sphere who hold anti-Semitic or anti-human rights views.
It is indeed quite troubling that the loudest opponents of the Durban II conference–from the United States to Australia to the European nations–are the very ones that have sordid histories of racism in their own countries and are responsible for perpetrating racism on a global scale through slavery, genocide, colonialism and imperialism. Israel serves as convenient excuse for them to avoid facing honest discussion of their culpability in creating and sustaining the crimes and debilitations of racism. The world needs such forums as part of the difficult task of constructing a global human rights culture in which racism and discrminiation in whatever form are gradually relegated to the dustbin of history.
This is why it is distressing that instead of promoting such a global dialogue, however painful and unpleasant it is, which it is for racism and discrimination have caused and still cause enormous pain and suffering, the United States under its first black president chooses to take the cowardly path of avoiding an open, global discussion about the legacies and contemporary manifestations of racism around the world. For a President who promised diplomacy over confrontation, talking over boycotts, this represents a monumental failure of political nerve. It might mark the beginning of the erosion of goodwill for the new administration in many parts of the global South and among racialized minorities in the global North.
I respectfully disagree with you. I believe that one shouldn’t underestimate the political signs that might be set by this conference and hence the importance for States to think beyond the underlying theme of the conference when deciding whether or not to participate. Issues of racism are important, no question about it. But if the conference threatens to merely became another opportunity for ‘Israel-bashing’ (and all signs point in this direction), then there is no essential reason for States who wish to address issues of racism on a global scale to participate.
Also, rest assured that all those countries that boycott the conference are not refraining from any substantive dialogue on the issues. This conference is certainly not the only forum where issues of racism are being discussed between States.
As a further point I cannot support the view that Israel would merely serve as an excuse for western States who allegedly do not wish to discuss their own role with regard to any possible acts motivated by racism. Although I certainly cannot speak for all western countries, most of them have undertaken applaudable efforts to fight racism within their own borders and to provide significant relief where they might have any historical liability. Please do not construe the participation to any conference (vaguely) addressing issues of racism as obligatory based merely on historical interpretations.
I agree entirely with Dominik. Regardless of the arguments for or against having a conference on racism in the first place, the original Durban meeting was an appalling spectacle which showed the UN at its absolute worst, and it would do no good at all for influential countries such as the US, Canada or Germany to give their implicit approval by attending. By boycotting the conference they can distance themselves entirely from the anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli, anti-free-speech rhetoric which we all know will dominate the review conference.
It’s also important to point out that most European countries long ago began the process of coming to terms with their racist and colonialist pasts. This is also true of the US, Australia and Canada. Only last year, for example, the Australian government apologised for the treatment it meted out to its Aboriginal inhabitants. I simply don’t understand what value the original Durban conference had in this respect, except as a platform for moral grandstanding. Indeed, the entire affair arguably detracts from the important work being done by governments, NGOs, CERD and others around the world in the genuine fight against racism.
I also have to point out that racism is hardly a Western phenomenon, and that discrimination against minority ethnic groups is a universal concern.
I second Innocent’s excellent views. It is a fact that most former colonist European countries have so far failed to apologise for crimes committed during colonialism and slave trade, including inter alia the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. Only dialogue between all nations can solve the historic rift between developing and developed countries.
Jernej, why should European nations apologise for crimes that no living European committed? And why is this restricted to Europeans? Are the crimes that African and/or Asian nations have committed in the past somehow different to those of the European colonial powers?
As I alluded in my previous comment, racism, exploitation, slavery and the like are not unique European crimes. People of all nations have committed them. So calling for European nations alone to apologise for past crimes is, frankly, applying a hypocritical double standard.
In any case, I agree with you that dialogue between all nations is of vital importance in healing rifts – but the Durban Review Conference is not part of that dialogue. It is an opportunity for people such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to air abhorrent racist views. That will not heal any rifts whatsoever.
Interesting discussion we got going here 😉
Jernej/Innocent, I still fail to understand the point that anybody would want to make by referring to the history of colonialism and slave trade. Not only is this historic perspective unlikely to serve any substantive purpose for any sort of judgment of a conference which seeks to “evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” (i.e. a conference that apparently wants to address current (!) issues of racism). But more importantly, this historic reference seems to me to be overly biased. If anybody claims that the western States’ boycott and the implied judgment of the rightfulness/wrongfulness of the conference is unjustified due to past events, couldn’t/shouldn’t one also claim that the participation of States who evidently and systematically violate human rights on a daily basis is equally unjustified?
Coming back to the argument of creating a forum I would again like to stress the point that it is certainly not accurate to assume that the boycotting States are not doing their share to overcome any “historic rift between developing and developed countries”. With all due respect to what this conference will achieve or could possibly have achieved, one shouldn’t expect too much of a singular event. Much has been done in this regard before Durban II and much will certainly be done after Durban II.
It is quite something to claim nation should not ‘apologise for crimes that no living European committed’. This is simply untrue. There a number of territories, where colonialism still persists and most colonies have been abolished only half a century ago. Further, nations are product of past and present. To claim that western European or any other nation should not apologise for crimes committed long time ago because they were not committed by there living inhabitants is an oxymoron. Equally important, it is important to learn from past mistakes and not long after the lost empire as some nations do. Developing countries may not present credible policy but it would be hypocritical to hope that the developed countries would do any better at Durban II by attending or not.
But Jernej, nobody who is alive today began the process of colonisation. In fact, the people who are alive today are those who abolished it. Almost all the remaining colonies exist by consent. (Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, French Guiana.)
In any case, if we take your argument to its logical conclusion we are left with absurdities. Should the people of Egypt apologise for the crimes of the pharoahs? What about the Italians and the crimes of the Roman empire? The Quechua people and the crimes of the Incas? The modern day Zulus and their crimes against the Voortrekkers?
I reiterate: all nations and ethnic groups could be said to be ‘guilty’ of certain crimes. We need to concentrate on the future, not on futile finger-pointing over history – which is what the Durban process seems to be focused on. The real work, as I said previously, is being done by NGOs, governments, and the CERD committee.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted on the opening day of the Durban II Conference that ‘the best riposte for this type of event is to reply and correct, not to withdraw and not boycott the Conference’. It appears that Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Israel and the US nd have again assumed the position of the ‘objective’ observers. On similar view see here: http://humanrightsdoctorate.blogspot.com/2009/04/durban-review-conference.html.