Saturday, February 28, 2009

Durban II: the Decision to Attend, or Not

A major news story being covered in all these different Israeli media sources today is the U.S. decision not to participate in the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Durban II. Canada was the first country to announce that it would not participate in the sequel to the first such conference--held in 2001--with Israel withdrawing from the conference some time later.

The conference, the organization of which is being chaired by Libya, Cuba and Iran, was under scrutiny for the fear that it would devolve into a display of antisemitism and anti-Israel attitudes as it did in 2001. At that conference, NGOs distributed leaflets with grotesque antisemitic caricatures and images expressing regret that Hitler had been defeated. The old forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was also openly available for sale at Durban I. Things began to look as though they would go the same route at Durban II when some of the planning events for the conference were scheduled to coincide with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Yom Kippur, the single holiest day in the Jewish religion. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for Jewish and/or Israeli NGOs to participate in key preparatory meetings for Durban II.

Though the US did send representatives to preparatory meetings, their efforts to modify the proposed "outcome document" for Durban II by removing language singling out Israel as a racist, illegitimate state failed. This failure precipitated the US decision not to participate in the conference, and Western European countries may follow suite.

There is a school of thought that says that one should engage with ones opponents rather than seek to exclude them. This is the policy Obama is taking with Iran, for example. Exclusion can have the effect of hardening the position of the excluded while inclusion provides opportunities for dialogue and resolution. The US seems to have made serious efforts to engage and persuade others to adopt a more moderate position than the one being proposed. The ideal would be to have some dissenting voice at Durban II to actively condemn acts of bigotry and antisemitism if they occur.

The other danger of non-participation by western democracies is that by not-participating, they send a message of aloofness and could reinforce the image of a west indifferent to the concerns of the developing world. Projecting such an image could be an impediment to rapprochement. It is, however, unlikely that skipping this one conference will have too damaging an impact on north-south relations. This is because Canada, the US and Israel are choosing not to participate for clearly stated reasons of principle and not indifference. Similarly, the US continues to press for engagement via other channels which ought to send a message of openness.

All this being said, with indications that Durban II will be little more than a repeat of Durban I, no liberal democracy should be associated with the displays of virulent intolerance that may be expected.

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