A global conference devoted to addressing racism is having trouble attracting an audience. The event, slated to take place in South Africa next week, boasts Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a plenary speaker — and so far, only a handful of leaders have RSVP-ed oui. Others have announced they will not attend: Israel, Canada, some European Union states, and now, the US.
Via Reuters: U.S. Will Boycott U.N. Conference on Racism
The United States will boycott a United Nations conference on racism next week, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday, citing objectionable language in the meeting’s draft declaration.
Wood said significant improvements were made to the conference document, but the text still reaffirmed “in toto” a declaration that emerged from the Durban conference which the United States had opposed. …
The United Nations organized the forum in Geneva to help heal the wounds from the last such meeting, in Durban, South Africa. The United States and Israel walked out of that 2001 conference when Arab states tried to define Zionism as racist. …
“With regret, the United States will not join the review conference,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood, ending weeks of deliberations inside the Obama administration over whether to attend.
It appears pressure from Israel and “war on terror” politics may have had a part in the US refusing to attend Durban II:
Diplomats said the high-profile presence of … Ahmadinejad at the forum made it probable that touchy subjects would still dominate the proceedings.
Ahmadinejad, who has previously said Israel should be “wiped off the map” and questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust happened, will address the plenary and hold a news conference on Monday — coinciding with Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Iran’s sentencing of U.S.-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison on Saturday may also have dampened White House enthusiasm about the chance of direct diplomatic contact with Tehran at the conference. …
Iranian dissidents on Saturday expressed dismay about [Ahmadinejad] taking center stage, saying his participation “would only serve to discredit the conference.”
Human Rights Watch says it is disappointed that the US chose not to participate. Given this nation’s struggle with the issue of bigotry — from slavery to the White House — and given President Obama’s historic speech on “race” last year, the US could have given the world the great gift of its insight in tackling an evil that needs to die.
During the last presidential campaign, Obama ran on the notion that we can’t make the world a better, safer place without talking to our “enemies.” In 2007, he had this exchange with CNN’s Anderson Cooper:
AC: In the spirit of . . . bold leadership would you be willing to meet . . . during the first year of your administration . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
BHO: I would. And the reason is . . . that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration—is ridiculous.”
If we can’t talk to those with whom we disagree, especially when the gaps between positions extend far and wide, how can we begin to solve the problem? In this instance, how can we start tackling the dangerous and divisive issue of racism if we aren’t brave enough to deal with the tough discussions? Of course the other side said something unconscionable — they’re racists! The thing is not to walk away. It’s to speak. And listen.
Of course, realistic people understand security concerns, unknown threats to which we are not privy, etc. And it does not seem fair to criticize nations that are acting on true principle. They’re condeming anti-Semitic hate speech, for heaven’s sake. But bigotry is an evil so damaging, so destructive — which people in the US and Israel know all too well — one might think their leaders would be courageous enough to endure ugly words in the hope of solving the problem. Indeed, if people aren’t allowed to speak freely and honestly, how can we ever solve the problem?
With Durban II essentially rendered toothless, one more chance to tackle racism and bigotry on a global scale is lost. Over semantics and hurt feelings. One can’t help but feel frustrated. How many more opportunities will we get?