The Irony of Obama’s Boycott

America’s first black president refused to attend a U.N. conference on racism.

BY Salim Muwakkil

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The fear many had that an Obama presidency could lessen governmental attention to crucial issues of race seems to be gathering credibility.

The Obama administration’s boycott of the United Nations’ Durban Review Conference in Geneva this month seems decidedly at odds with his vow of open diplomacy. The four-day conference was convened to evaluate progress toward the goals set by the U.N.’s World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

That conference ended in controversy, with Israel and the United States objecting to WCAR’s final declaration condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Many human and civil rights activists considered the 2001 conference a significant global event, which for the first time explicitly addressed important issues such as the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism; the intersection of sexism and racism and overt discrimination against Roma and Sinti peoples (so-called “Gypsies”), Dalits (India’s so-called “untouchables”) and Palestinians.

But while many social justice advocates heralded WCAR as a turning point of awareness in the fight against long embedded racial biases, others regarded the conference as a showcase for propaganda against Israel and her allies (i.e., the United States).

Israel announced it would boycott the Durban Review conference months before the event, while the United States withdrew just two days before it convened on April 20. (The Obama administration cited its fear that the conference would become a platform for “hypocritical and counterproductive” antagonism toward Israel.)

Such a contentious venue would seem to have offered the Obama administration an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the less belligerent diplomatic style it touts. Since the Bush administration boycotted WCAR 2001, Obama’s attendance would have marked a clear contrast.

Instead, the United States joined Israel in its early criticism of the conference’s draft statement that concluded, among other things, that Israel’s policy in the occupied Palestinian territories constituted a “violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid.”

The statement said Israel is implementing collective punishment against the Palestinians as well as “torture, economic blockage, severe restriction of movement and arbitrary closure of their territories.”

Several nations joined Israel in denouncing that language and threatened to boycott the conference unless the statement was amended. Ironically, this outrage over language was occurring in the wake of a three-week Israeli military action in Gaza, during which the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights accused it of committing war crimes.

All of the sentences citing Israel were excised from the pre-conference statement. But this radical alteration still failed to stop the boycott by Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, German, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and New Zealand. The Czech Republic initially attended, but joined the boycott following a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that branded Israel “racist.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner criticized the boycotting nations for utilizing the “politics of the empty chair.” Kouchner said it is paradoxical that Washington won’t listen to Iran in Geneva while being ready to talk to the country about nuclear issues.

Many conference participants were angered that the inordinate emphasis on the issue of Israeli racism–which most consider manifest–left little time for issues of at least equal importance.

For example, a large contingent of African-Americans who attended the WCAR 2001 returned inspired by their collective ability to get the transatlantic slave trade listed as a crime against humanity in WCAR’s final declaration. Such crimes have no statute of limitation, thus opening the way for reparations claims.

But fewer African-American groups participated in this month’s conference than in WCAR–ironically, their influence has been diminished by the ascension of an African-American to the White House.

“More than anything else, the symbolism of an African-American president rejecting a world gathering called to help wipe out racism is just stunning,” noted Stan E. Willis, Chicago director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) and a veteran of the 2001 conference.

“Issues that are very important to African-Americans were on the agenda of the Durban Review conference,” Willis said. “I’m ashamed that the Obama administration simply echoed the Bush administration.”

Others criticized the United States and other boycotting nations for ceding ground to the radicals, rather than using the venue to push for greater press freedoms, women’s rights and increased governmental transparency. Many Muslim groups’ push for international laws prohibiting blasphemy are problematic and should be aggressively resisted.

Near the conference’s end, a coalition of non-governmental organizations representing African diasporan descendants condemned the 10 boycotting nations as “…the principal perpetrators and/or beneficiaries of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Slavery.” The coalition accused the countries of bowing out of the conference to avoid paying reparations and being called out for their own racist behavior.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the boycotting nations to endorse the conference’s anti-racism declaration. “States that boycotted the conference for fear it would foster hatred should be reassured by this declaration and should join the global consensus against racism,” said HRW’s Geneva director, Juliette de Rivero.

The fear many had that an Obama presidency could ironically lessen governmental attention to crucial issues of race seems to be gathering credibility.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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