The Durban Paranoia

Anne Bayefsky is still sputtering about the United States’ cowardly decision not to pack its bags and fling them in the face of every other country interested in holding a meaningful conference on racism. Holding her nose, Bayefsky dives into the bureaucratic minutiae of the preparatory meetings to which — gasp — the United States decided to send a delegation and, unsurprisingly, is appalled by what she sees. The very Constitution is in jeopardy, in her frantic outlook, because the U.S. delegates did not reject out of hand the idea that countries should…wait for it…oppose hate speech. The provision in question:

States Parties condemn all propaganda and all organizations which are based on ideas or theories of superiority of one race or group of persons of one colour or ethnic origin, or which attempt to justify or promote racial hatred and discrimination in any form, and undertake to adopt immediate and positive measures designed to eradicate all incitement to, or acts of, such discrimination…

To assuage free speech concerns, the U.S. delegation made sure to cite a later provision reassuring “the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” But far from calming Bayefsky, this only stokes her rage; by even referencing the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, rather than tearing it to pieces, the United States is, in her twisted paranoia, sacrificing its very sovereignty, and binding itself to the sordid agenda of the Durban Review Conference’s more unsavory participants (the Irans and Cubas and North Koreas of the world that the Right will stare down so readily when it comes to military bluster, but to which they ascribe a bizarrely aggrandized influence when it comes to diplomacy).

In a remarkable reverse-Orwellian feat, Bayefsky unconcernedly relies on assumptions that, when it comes to Durban, everything means exactly the opposite of what it appears to mean. Thus, the anti-racism conference is invariably a “racist confab,” and any motion to curb hate speech is certainly an insidious attempt to eat away at our treasured principle of free speech. By ceding the territory of meaning to the conference’s nefarious actors — that Iran has an anti-Semitic agenda should come as no surprise to anyone — Bayefsky is essentially stooping to their level. Human rights have meaning and value, and it would be encouraging to see skeptics like Bayefsky express some interest in strengthening the concept worldwide, instead of simply retreating and retrenching in America’s own fortress of freedom.

“There is no escape from Durban II — at least with our vital principles intact,” Bayefsky self-righteously — and entirely mistakenly — asserts. First, the United States can “escape” from the upcoming conference by simply not attending, if it determines that it is in U.S. interests to do so. Second, it affords the Durban Review Conference a not unironically excessive amount of influence to claim, as Bayefsky so earnestly does, that participation in the mere preparatory meetings will forever damn America’s most treasured values. Just as sending a delegation does not convey the U.S. imprimatur on the goals of every conference participant, neither is any subversive agenda powerful enough to taint “our vital principles.”

Bayefsky’s outlandish propaganda stems from an equally ludicrous source. Greased by the constant bellowing of paranoia and consolidated by the linguistic coup of redefining an anti-racism conference with the packed epithet of “Durban II,” the contention that sitting at a table of preparatory meetings will bind the United States to all the iniquities of the Review Conference’s predecessor (itself the subject of frenzied historical re-imagining) stems from a misinterpretation of the conference’s purpose. Bayefsky sees naught but doom in the proviso that the objective of the Durban Review Conference is to “foster the implementation of the Durban Declaration.” To her great misunderstanding, though, this is not a condemnation to inevitable hate-mongering and value-eroding. On the contrary, this is very much a good thing for the cause of anti-racism, as well as probably the best way to avoid the bursts of Israel-bashing that did occur in Durban in 2001.

To avoid confusion with the imaginative anti-Semitic diatribe that Bayefsky invokes, it is worth specifying that this is very much not the document “that claims Israelis are racists.” Perhaps she is mixing it up with trash like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Or, to be more charitable, she is likely cleverly fudging the distinction between the actual Declaration adopted, the additional objectionable material whose inclusion a collection of countries refused to allow, and the truly disgusting NGO document that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights refused to even touch.

This obfuscation is convenient for Bayefsky’s purposes, for while the latter is mostly a collection of anti-Semitic bunk, the official Declaration is ultimately harmless — and, in fact, given the host of admirable anti-racism provisions that it contains, is actually quite admirable on the whole. True, Israel is the only country mentioned by name in the document — but it must be said, the worst aspect of this is an expression of concern for “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.” Even forgetting for a moment that this statement is followed immediately by an explicit recognition of Israel’s interest in security, the only offensive element of this sentence that could be construed as offensive is the use of the word “occupation.” And while that may offend greatly, it is surely a far stretch to equate it with a claim that “Israelis are racists.”

Unfortunately, it seems that commentators like Bayefsky are as hell-bent in demeaning and destroying the purpose of this anti-racism conference as are the malicious foes that she occupies herself at denigrating. And it may not be likely that the United States pulls the rabbit of an ideally successful Durban Review Conference out of the hat of the preparatory meetings, but neither will it fall into the pit of corrosive wickedness that Bayefsky makes the process out to be.