A United Nations conference this week in Geneva, ostensibly designed to address racism and other forms of intolerance, provides a welcome wake-up call for those who believe that all global disputes are rooted in mere misunderstanding.
The reality is much different, as the results of U.S. diplomatic efforts of recent weeks have made clear. President Obama, who is far more popular on the world stage than his controversial predecessor, has nevertheless faced serious obstacles in coordinating a global response to the economic downturn; reversing North Korean and Iranian nuclear progress; convincing our European allies to send more troops to Afghanistan; addressing Russia’s regional aggression; defusing the Israeli-Palestinian and larger Middle East conflicts; and confronting Islamic-driven terrorism.
Obama’s popularity is one thing, regional and ideological disputes (some of them centuries in the making) are quite another. This generation of Americans, especially the Obama backers who expected him to quickly bridge our differences with friends and foes alike, is not the first to confront this harsh reality.
Nearly a half-century ago, President Kennedy flew to Europe during his first year in office and both he and his glamorous wife, Jackie, wowed the continent. At a luncheon in Paris, the young president was even moved to joke, “I do not think it altogether inappropriate to introduce myself to this audience. I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”
European adoration, however, did not produce smooth sailing at the governmental level. During his tenure, Kennedy faced huge problems with the leaders of France and Germany, for instance, when it came to coordinating Western policy in response to Soviet threats over the fate of a divided Berlin.
Fast forward to this week. Nations and groups have gathered in Geneva for the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference, which is supposed to measure progress toward combating “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance” since the 2001 U.N. conference on that subject in Durban, South Africa.
That this week’s conference opened on April 20, the 120th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birth, is only fitting – for this get-together has already plunged into the rank anti-Semitism that marked its predecessor.
Indeed, that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who has denied the Holocaust but has, in essence, promised a second one to “wipe” Israel “off the map” – spoke on the first day and charged that Zionism “personifies racism,” makes the real agenda of this event ever-more transparent.
To the dismay of event organizers, Obama announced late last week that the United States would boycott it over concerns about its direction. His decision follows the boycott announcements of long ago by Israel and Canada and more recent ones by the Netherlands, Italy, Australia and Germany.
The U.N. reaction to Obama’s decision was predictable, with its high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, saying she was “shocked and deeply disappointed” that “a handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance.”
Notwithstanding this predictably Orwellian view from Turtle Bay, it was the event’s organizers (including officials from such morally challenged nations as Libya, Cuba and Iran) who “permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach” and that made Obama’s decision the only defensible one.
From the start, through the drafting of papers to guide the conference, Israel has been on the hot seat. While the Jewish State was singled out as a serial human rights violator and the cause of regional conflict, the far more serious human rights abuses of neighboring Muslim countries received little attention.
Also troubling was a push to use international law to prohibit any criticism of Islam, which would essentially put questions about the theological roots of anti-Western terrorism off limits for open debate.
That preparations for Durban II fell to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, the embarrassing successor to the equally embarrassing Human Rights Commission – both of which mocked “human rights” by obsessing over Israel and ignoring brutality in Sudan, Congo and elsewhere – made the result all too predictable.
Durban II is a moral disgrace. But for those seeking a silver lining in this dark cloud, here’s one: By highlighting the clear differences between nations over human rights and other issues, it brings a needed dose of reality to discussions about how the U.S. should operate in a dangerous world.