Rights Groups Urge Obama Administration to Address Concerns with the Durban Review Conference
Washington, DC - The incoming Obama Administration should lead an international effort to reshape the United Nations Durban Review Conference into a forum for credible discussion of racism and intolerance, rather than boycott the conference, Human Rights First and two other leading human rights organizations, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee, said today in a letter to Secretary of State designee Hillary Clinton.
"This meeting will be seen by other governments and non-governmental organizations as an early indicator of the new administration's desire to engage with the UN," the letter reads. "The United States should work to ensure that the conference advances rather than undermines the protection of fundamental rights and should engage with others to press for that outcome."
The UN Durban Review Conference, scheduled to be held this April in Geneva, is intended to review the steps that have been taken to combat racism and discrimination since the controversial 2001 World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa. The letter to Senator Clinton described the atmosphere of the first Durban conference, which all three organizations attended, as being "hateful" and "antisemitic." Nevertheless, the letter contends that the conference produced "a Program of Action that included important and timely recommendations for states to combat racism and discrimination," which should be pursued.
Rather than boycott the conference - a step being called for by some organizations - the three rights groups are urging the Obama Administration to "lead an international effort to put the conference back on track," by actively confronting problematic language proposed for the outcome document, in which the Conference's official conclusions will be laid out. Official negotiations over the outcome document will begin on January 19th and are expected to continue through April.
Among the particular concerns addressed in the letter about states' proposals to date for the outcome document is the inclusion of:
- Accusations that Israel is engaging in a "new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity [and] a form of genocide" and language that appears intended to make political action regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the overwhelming focus of some states' participation in the conference, to the detriment of its overall agenda
- Overly broad language calling for international prohibitions on speech in the name of protecting religions as a whole from so-called "defamation," at the expense of protecting the rights of individuals to express their views and practice the religion of their choice
- Expansions of existing international norms on incitement to racial and religious hatred, which also raises concerns about the protection of freedom of expression
The letter notes that the United States should not agree to an outcome document that includes the language described above. "If that is the case, the United States can withdraw with the knowledge that it sought to redirect the conference."
The groups are calling on Senator Clinton to develop a strategy to proactively shape the Conference's agenda by proposing the inclusion of priorities the United States is prepared to support and work to implement. These proposals could include a concrete program for combating racial, xenophobic, and religiously motivated violence, as well as an effort to strengthen legal remedies for acts of discrimination through improvements to judicial systems and bolstering official human rights bodies at a national level.
The full text of the letter is below:
January 12, 2009
Dear Senator Clinton:
We write to urge you, as President-elect Obama's nominee for secretary of state, to act as soon as possible following your confirmation to address serious concerns in connection with the U.N. Durban Review Conference in order to ensure that the review conference is a forum for credible discussions on racism and related intolerance and to prevent a recurrence of the problems that marred the 2001 World Conference Against Racism (WCAR).
We participated in the WCAR and were deeply disturbed by the hateful, antisemitic atmosphere that plagued the conference and especially the NGO forum that preceded it. Nevertheless, governments were able to produce a Program of Action there that included important and timely recommendations for states to combat racism and discrimination.
The Durban Review Conference provides an opportunity to review states' progress in the implementation of their commitments to combat racism made in 2001. This notwithstanding, our organizations have participated in the preparations for the conference and share many of the concerns that have been expressed by the United States and other governments. These concerns include language proposed by states for the review conference outcome document that:
- accuses Israel of engaging in "a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity [and] a form of genocide" and appears intended to make political action regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the overwhelming focus of some states' participation in the conference, to the detriment of its overall agenda. No other country specific situations have been proposed;
- calls for "internationally binding normative standards" to guarantee against defamation of religions, overbroad language which threatens freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief and which relates to religions as a whole rather than the rights of individuals to be protected from racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; and
- expands existing international norms on incitement to racial and religious hatred, also an overbroad formulation which raises concerns about the protection of freedom of expression.
The Obama Administration should lead an international effort to put the conference back on track. The Durban Review Conference in late April will be the first significant human rights event at the U.N. for the new administration. This meeting will be seen by other governments and nongovernmental organizations as an early indicator of the new administration's desire to engage with the U.N. If the U.S. government boycotts the review conference entirely, as the Bush Administration has essentially done so far, it loses the ability to influence the direction of this conference. Such a boycott also undermines U.S. influence on the Human Rights Council and other U.N. bodies that have been plagued with similar problems.
While some organizations are calling for a U.S. boycott, we believe that is the wrong decision at this time. The United States should work to ensure that the conference advances rather than undermines the protection of fundamental rights, and engage with others to press for that outcome. By engaging actively, the new administration can make clear that it intends to advance credible human rights discussions at the United Nations. In this regard, we urge you to take note of the recent resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives (H.Res. 1361, attached), which charts a course for U.S. engagement on the Durban Review Conference at the highest levels, and which was supported by our organizations. While we recognize that current events in the Middle East may have an impact on the political environment surrounding the conference, we believe that the new Administration should forge ahead with its efforts turn the conference around.
Official negotiations on the conference's outcome document will begin on January 19. These discussions are likely to continue until the conference is held at the end of April. Several European and other states have expressed concerns about the conference, including France, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which have signaled that they would not participate in a conference if the outcome document contained some of the problematic language described above. These governments could be enlisted as important allies in the new administration's efforts to shape the conference's agenda and its outcome document.
Ultimately, the United States may not be able to agree to an outcome document, and, if it includes the language described above, it should not. If that is the case, the United States can withdraw with the knowledge that it sought to redirect the conference.
We urge you to develop a strategy for the new administration to address the problems with the Durban Review Conference. As part of that strategy, we recommend that you begin preparing for a series of discussions about this conference with diplomatic representatives from key countries immediately after the inauguration. In the context of those discussions, the administration should also be prepared to propose agenda priorities for the Durban Review Conference that the United States is prepared to support and work to implement. These include a concrete program for combating racial, xenophobic, and religiously motivated violence; strengthening legal remedies for acts of discrimination, including through improvements to judicial systems; and the strengthening of official human rights bodies at a national level. Such a program would advance implementation of the commitments made by states in 2001 and address persistent issues of racism and related intolerance common to all states.
Thank you very much for your consideration of these recommendations. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with you and would be glad to provide you with additional information or material that may be useful to you as you make this important decision.
CEO and Executive Director
Human Rights First
President and CEO
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
E. Robert Goodkind, Chair
Felice D. Gaer, Director
Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee
cc: Susan Rice