US Should Lead the World on Combating Racism: GFW Board Member

board_gay.jpgRead an op-ed by Gay McDougall, Global Fund Board member, human rights lawyer and UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues

On April 20th, the leaders of nations around the world will meet in Geneva to discuss specific measures that should be taken to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and wherever it exists.

At the last such gathering, in 2001, they all admitted that “racial discrimination exists in every region of the world” and committed to report back to each other on progress toward eradicating it.  The Bush Administration walked out of the 2001 meeting citing inappropriate references to Israel in the draft of the closing document.  America’s absence from a global reaffirmation to end racism was incongruous and was deeply disappointing to the world movement against racism.

Now the Obama Administration  is debating being among only 3 nations to not participate in the upcoming conference.  That would be a tragedy.  It would send a confusing signal about the victory over prejudice that his election symbolizes.  It would squander the unparalleled opportunity that his highly regarded administration has at this moment to guarantee a universally praiseworthy outcome to the conference.  And,  it would contradict his strategic objective of  re-establishing America’s image as a fair player in the multi-lateral processes of the United Nations.

The only issue in contention is what the closing declaration will say about Israel.  While there was much rancor during the 2001 conference regarding language about Israel, the outcome was a resolution that was praised by the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, as “a very important achievement…for Israel.” Yet, calls for the US to boycott the upcoming conference have asserted or presumed that the final language of the 2001 document was highly objectionable.  That is simply incorrect.  Few have actually read the full text in question:

Durban Declaration

58. We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten;

61. 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;

63. 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;

64. 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;

Programme of Action

150. Calls upon States, in opposing all forms of racism, to recognize the need to counter anti-Semitism, anti-Arabism and Islamophobia world-wide, and urges all States to take effective measures to prevent the emergence of movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas concerning these communities;

151. As for the situation in the Middle East, calls for the end of violence and the swift resumption of negotiations, respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, respect for the principle of self-determination and the end of all suffering, thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom;

The Obama Administration has already won some substantial victories in the preparation process leading to the upcoming conference.  In March they insisted that large portions of the draft document be deleted that could have been interpreted as references to Israel or the issue of “defamation of religion”, a topic of great concern among Islamic states.  All of the language they found objectionable has now been removed.  This is a sign of goodwill and willingness to compromise.  It needs to be reciprocated.  This may be the “unclench[ed] fist” in response to which President Obama pledged in his Inaugural Address to “extend a hand.”  The longer we wait to respond, the more likely a chilling effect will set in that may impact other areas of American strategic foreign policy objectives.

We will not be able to usher in a new era of peace and fruitful international cooperation if we are not willing to engage in the process.  At this moment  President Obama has tremendous goodwill to mobilize for change.  That can’t happen if we sit on the sidelines.  Goodwill could be turned into dynamic energy that could infuse the conference with the incomparable new vision of leadership and common humanity that sprung forth from the President’s historic campaign.  We owe it to the importance of these issues—the global fight against racism--to do everything possible to make this conference a success.

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