The Obama administration and the United States as a whole will be haunted for a long time by the decision to boycott a United Nations international conference on racism and intolerance starting today in Geneva.
A brief five-paragraph statement announcing the decision was released by the State Department on Saturday evening while everyone was focused elsewhere: this time on the summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. There, paradoxically, White House officials were happy to stress to reporters the importance the president placed on racial diversity and multiculturalism.
But the big test was not in Trinidad. It was in Geneva, where scores of nations are meeting to review the outcome of a 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, which was marred by hate speech against Israel and the West. The United States walked out of that meeting, along with Israel, before a final document was agreed upon that for all its potentially loaded language dealt with significant American criticisms.
For the review that runs all this week, many nations have worked for months in bare-knuckle negotiations to create a report erasing offensive provisions, a report that the United States–a hoped for shining star with its first African-American president–could live with.
Instead, the United States turned its back on a chance to do more to enhance its image across the developing world than any grand tour of Europe could ever accomplish. Washington ran away from a confrontation that many struggling human rights activists in the poorest and often most repressed countries would have welcomed. A lot of nations could do with a stern lecture on tolerance and the treatment of minorities from President Obama. Now the brazen troublemakers have been ceded the floor. This “triumph” will embolden them and color other UN forums to come.
In the United States the reaction from human rights organizations and other interested groups was immediate. In a statement given to CNN, the Congressional Black Caucus said it was “deeply dismayed” by the decision. “Had the United States sent a high-level delegation reflecting the richness and diversity of our country, it would have sent a powerful message to the world that we’re ready to lead by example,” the caucus said. “Instead, the administration opted to boycott the conference, a decision that does not advance the cause of combating racism and intolerance but rather sets the cause back.”
Juliette de Rivero, advocacy director in Geneva for Human Rights Watch, said: “The boycott plays into the hands of those who want the conference to fail. The only ones celebrating will be those who want to undermine efforts to defeat racism and protect rights.”
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, a South African who sent nations (many of them friends of the United States) back to the drawing board to produce an acceptable document and who from the start wanted to make this conference global in scope and move the fight out of the introverted Middle East, said Sunday that she was “shocked and deeply disappointed” by the US decision.