April 15, 2009

Obama Administration Must Not Boycott World Racism Conference

The following has been cross-posted on Daily Kos and Open Salon.

On April 20, a world conference on racism is taking place, and the Obama administration hasn’t decided if it will attend.

The Durban Review Conference is being held in Geneva, Switzerland, and NGO’s and representatives from around the world will be in attendance. The purpose of the meeting is to follow up on the 2001 World Conference Against Racism (which was held in Durban, South Africa), and to promote full ratification and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), of which the U.S. is a signatory.

What ICERD really represents is the legal foundation for the Durban process. Article 1 of the convention says the following:

In this Convention, the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

The Obama administration originally expressed opposition to the Geneva meeting, based on draft resolutions which called for reparations for slavery, and stated that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is based on racism. That language was deleted, yet, no final decision from the White House on whether they will participate in the most significant global effort to fight racial discrimination. Israel has decided not to participate, for fear of being singled out over the Palestinian issue.

If you read the Washington Post, you’re given the impression that the U.S. will boycott the conference. And in an official press release, the State Department expresses some continued reservations with the draft text. However, the newspaper Haaretz reported that senior U.S. officials are leaning towards attending the summit in Geneva. There seems to be some uncertainty, some confusion about what really will happen. And there really is no time for equivocation on the issue of racism.

Human rights groups look forward to U.S. participation, as it would further legitimize the conference, and help to increase the visibility of U.S.-based human rights groups that are committed to fighting against racism. These organizations are working on issues such as diverse as juvenile justice, immigrant rights, labor, the death penalty, prisoner’s rights and prison reentry, racial profiling, domestic violence, housing discrimination and voting rights. A group of 40 organizations and 92 individual signatories wrote an open letter to the President, urging him to participate in the conference.

"If the Obama Administration is willing to engage in dialogue with avowed enemies such as Iran then surely it should be willing to engage the international community in a dialogue on methods and principles to end racism and xenophobia," said Ajamu Baraka, Executive Director of the US Human Rights Network (USHRN). Baraka added that "as we all know, at time of global and economic crisis, we must make a special effort to protect the human rights of groups most vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance."

For human rights advocates, this is about far more than attending a single conference in Geneva. Rather, it is about what happens beyond the meeting. America needs to stop playing games and start to show a commitment to human rights. USHRN’s Baraka—who fears that the administration has "Reverend Wrighted" the Durban Review Conference—believes that an administration that is committed to eliminating racism and white supremacy "would be truly revolutionary."

And racism and racial discrimination certainly are issues that many societies refuse to confront and tackle head on. It speaks to that "drum major instinct" that Dr. Martin Luther King, the great human rights champion, so poignantly described:

A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.... And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dr. King was a man of action, direct action. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, he criticized the moderate clergy who felt that his activities—that is, fighting against racial injustice through nonviolence— were "unwise and untimely." Well, today, there are some who would rather sweep the world’s racism problem under the rug. They believe that now is not the time to deal with it, on the grounds that we might embarrass this or that person, this or that nation. As for the U.S., a nation which has embarrassingly turned its back on civil rights, human rights, the rule of law and international standards during the Bush administration—there is a need to exert some global leadership on human rights. What better place to start than the Durban Review Conference? And as they say, there’s no better time than the present.

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