Lately, my day job as a public affairs director for a Washington, DC-based social justice and advocacy organization has become consumed with work related to the upcoming Durban Review Conference – statements, reports, conference calls, media queries. The conference is the follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Intolerance. For the most part, I have been able to stay on point, successfully navigating around the one big issue in the debate – whose issues really matter? That was until today when a caller to a local radio show put it all on the table: “When are we going to talk about the real problem? We know the reason the U.S. isn’t sending a delegation to the conference, it is the Jews.” As every spokesperson is trained to do, I ignored the question and focused on my talking points.
But after the interview, I consulted my key advisor and teacher, one of the wisest people in my social circle, my daughter — 17 going on 35. What is the response, I asked? I didn’t want this debate to degenerate into some sort of unproductive battle between Blacks and Jews.
But the reality is that the issue of the Middle East, and the administration’s assessment that language in the draft documents was anti-Semitic was the published reason for their decision to abstain from the conference. The U.S. walked out of that 2001 conference, despite the fact that the final Declaration is a comprehensive call to governments to embark upon a path towards human rights and social justice by ending the marginalization of people of African descent, women, refugees, migrants, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and the poor.
Until today, the Obama administration has upheld a boycott of the 2009 review conference, claiming that its documents also contained anti-Semitic language. This so despite the fact that millions of people around the globe have seen advances in their struggle for racial equality based in part upon the conference proceedings and that scores of nations around the world support the final declaration.
So, what is the response to the question? Without hesitation, without much thought my child replied, ‘The question is beside the point. The question is a distraction. The point of the Durban Conference, Mom, is the conversation.” She is right. The caller didn’t get it, and thus far, the administration hasn’t got it either.
Because this administration and others before it have placed narrow geo-strategic interests above the need to focus on figuring out how we use our most advanced thinking on human rights and human security to move all of us toward becoming a human family.
The question is not Black versus Jew, or gay versus straight, migrant versus national, indigenous versus other, but how do we begin to reframe our thinking and produce solutions that lead to the enfranchisement of all. The U.S. used the threat of non-participation by the world’s most popular leader as a lever to force the United Nations to remove language it perceived as offensive; that is coercive diplomacy. Some may call it real world politic, but at its core it places U.S. interests above everyone else’s. That type of thinking, U.S. exceptionalism is, as my daughter would say, a distraction from the truly important big picture – the conversation.
With or without the U.S., the Review Conference will produce an outcome document, a declaration that nations of the world with endorse, in full or in part. There will be papers generated, stories of best practices shared, and maybe some governments will commit to developing national action plans to combat racism. But at the core, beyond the papers, is the hopeful kernel that this discussion might possibly move the global community further towards the creation of a world in which the human family can thrive.