Obama Administration Sets Preconditions for Negotiations at Durban Review Conference

Sam Stein listens in on a conference call in which National Security Council Director for Multi-lateral Affairs Samantha Power explains to American Jewish leaders the Obama administration’s hang-ups about participating in the UN anti-Racism Durban Review Conference next week.  

The current working text, she said “met two of our four red lines frontally, in the sense that it went no further than reparations and it did drop all references to Israel and all anti-Semitic language. But it continued to reaffirm, in toto, Durban I. And while it did drop specific references to defamation, it continues to include very problematic language on incitement… that are out of line with core U.S. commitments to free speech. So that’s where we have been for a couple weeks, with a text that is dramatically improved… [but] also ratifies the U.S. decision to walk away in the sense that it did seem to spur the other delegations to go back to the drawing board… We have not reengaged in any kind of formal way with this process. Our red lines remain our red lines… In order for us to participate in the negotiations, to sit behind the placard, to be involved in a frontal way, much more would need to be done. And all four of our red lines will need to be met.” [emphasis mine]

This sounds to me like the Obama administration is setting the kind of “preconditions to negotiation” that candidate Obama so eloquently sought to remove from the catalogue of American diplomacy.

Here’s the  back story:  Starting April 20th, delegations from most countries on earth will meet in Geneva, Switzerland for a UN sponsored conference on combating racism.  Their goal is to create a document that can set common international standards on fighting racism and xenophobia.  The meeting is called the “Durban Review Conference” because it is a follow-up to a conference that took place eight years ago in Durban, South Africa.  That conference was a bit of a disaster;  a number of Islamic states used it as a forum to attack Israel and the United States’ delegation staged a walkout. 

Under Bush, the United States boycotted all preparatory conferences for the confab in April. When Obama took office he said he would give a fresh look at American participation. In February, the administration sent a delegation to one of the preparatory meetings in which a draft document was negotiated.  The resulting document was pretty bad. It called “defaming religion” a human rights violation. It also contained a number of unfair criticisms of Israel.  A couple of weeks ago, the State Department announced that the document was not “salvageable” and that the United States would not participate in the meeting in April absent major changes to the draft.

The threat of U.S. non-participation started a ripple effect culminating in the potential that the European Union might also not attend.  This, in turn, inspired better heads to prevail.  Three weeks ago, negotiators scrapped the offending language and all mentions of Israel.  But, there are two remaining issues that apparently will preclude American participation.  The first is a sentence that re-affirms “in toto” the 2001 Durban Declaration. This is problematic because the 2001 document contains three references to Israel (it is the only country that is singled out).  The administration also objects to this paragraph from the draft currently being discussed:

“Reaffirms that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law, as well as the dissemination of  ideas based on racial superiority and hatred and acts of violence and incitement to such acts, and  that these prohibitions are consistent with freedom of opinion and expression.” 

So, the above paragraph plus a reference to a document that references Israel may prevent America from participating in a conference that most of the rest of the world will join.  But if it turns out that American threats to boycott the conference do not yield any more changes to the draft document between now and the start of the conference, wouldn’t it make sense for the United States to shift strategies and see what it can accomplish through direct engagement? If it participates in the conference, the worst that can happen is the status quo remains and the United States does not sign the final outcome document. On the other hand, with the United States seated at the table, it stands a much better chance of achieving its preferred outcome.