Fighting the Good Fight Against Racism

Two recent opinion pieces take aim squarely at what looms as an early decision for President Barack Obama — the Durban Review Conference, a successor to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism. The purpose of the upcoming conference, as Claudia Rosett — no fan of the United Nations by any stretch — notes rather dismissively in her Forbes column:

As in 2001, the U.N. pretext is to end racism. Or, in U.N. lingo–take a deep breath — the aim is “the total elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”


The thing is, this is not a “pretext,” nor is it a program of “the U.N.” cum organization. Though it is widely reported a “a U.N. event,” the Conference is in fact a gathering of countries from around the world, all of which, yes, are UN Member States, and each of which, yes, have their own sub-agendas within the broad goal of combating racism and intolerance.

Rosett then makes the rather obvious point that — no surprise here — there are a number of “bad actors” on the international stage. These voices — including some countries, but, as in 2001, even more NGOs, whose outbursts in a side conference should be more proscribed this time around — who will likely seek to twist the conference’s laudable purpose toward certain individual complaints and unacceptable digressions, including, as the standard arguments against the conference are right to denounce, some inexcusable anti-Semitic statements. Unfortunately, plugging our ears to this kind of dreck neither makes it any less likely to occur, nor deprives it of a forum. The only way to counter speech we don’t like, as the constitutional adage goes, is with more speech.Rosett’s list of unsavory countries participating in the planning process for the Review Conference includes Libya, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Cameroon, and Cuba. These countries’ poor human rights records are well known; but simply avoiding interactions with countries we disapprove will make no inroads into improving their human rights performances. Moreover, why should their participation weigh more than that of the robust human rights defenders that make up the vast majority of the conference’s participants? The idea that by participating in a conference, the United States automatically endorses the outlandish statements of countries with which it does not agree both gives those voices too much credit and that of the United States and other human rights proponents far too little.

The Wall Street Journal editorial that was also published yesterday frets audibly about the terrible setbacks to human and free speech rights that will occur “if the Durban II drafters have their way.” First of all, not all of the drafters are singularly committed to abridging rights and denigrating Israel; this critique, even if overstretched, should be applied only to some of the drafters. The distinction is important, as to elide it vastly underestimates the influence and contributions of countries truly seeking advances in the ongoing fight against racism. And if the United States and other rights-defending countries do not wish for these “bad actors” to “have their way,” how will they be at all able to mount a counter-offensive in the name of human rights from the sidelines?

Lost in the hubbub over the condemnable theatrics of the original Durban anti-racism conference is the fact that its participants — after taking a stand and refusing to include any language attacking Israel in its final outcome document — produced what is arguably the farthest reaching and most substantive anti-racism accord ever. Claudia Rosett’s implication is right — the United States, with the echoes of Martin Luther King, Jr. ringing through history, bears the immense power of its ideals and values. These are weapons that should not merely be holstered, though, particularly when they have such widespread appeal to those suffering under racial or ethnic exploitation. In a year in which the United States has taken a historic step toward overcoming racial divides — electing the nation’s first African-American president — but in which the crimes and offenses of racism and related intolerance remain all-too-prevalent, this is no time to shy away from fighting for an aggressive anti-racism agenda — even if the fight is going to be tough.