As President Obama shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he was willing to take the political heat. He said that he was not concerned about the politics of the hand shake and more concerned about extending an open hand to nations hostile to the U.S. The open hand, it seems, is not so open after all. The President announced that, like the Bush Administration, the United States will boycott the world anti-racism conference (Durban II), which opens in Geneva today. According to the President, "I would love to be involved in a useful conference that addressed continuing issues of racism and discrimination around the globe. We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all of the language from 2001, that's not something we can sign up for. "Hopefully some concrete steps come out of the conference that we can partner with other countries on to actually reduce discrimination around the globe, but this wasn't an opportunity to do it."
He is not willing to take the political heat in this case because there is language criticizing Israel and the West in the final document. As the world celebrates the election of the first Black President, the United States boycotts the world conference against racism. Symbolism, it seems has met political reality.
On this issue, it is difficult to reconcile the President's rhetoric with his actions. The President has repeatedly said that his policy is to talk with those with whom he disagrees. He is talking to Chavez, to Ahmadinejad, to Medvedev and Kim but cannot talk to human rights defenders about the best way to address the continuing significance of racism world wide? Surely the message cannot be that the United States does not believe that the right to be free from racism is not a basic human right.
Ostensibly, he refuses to talk because the draft document and the conference will be used as a platform to defame Israel. So, why didn't he walk out of the Summit of the Americas when Chavez presented him with the book, "The Open Veins of Latin America?"
Wasn't it this same President who on his recent trip to Europe decried American arrogance and was savaged for doing so on "foreign soil?" And gladly took the criticism.
Given this, one must ask why he is now unwilling to take the political heat by sending a delegation to the conference to counter the alleged "defamation" that will occur. The 2009 conference presents an opportunity for the United States, Israel and others to move beyond the vile and base debate about Israel and frame the debate in a manner which addresses the continuing scourge of racism worldwide. The reality is that this conference is not about Israel; it is about racism. By boycotting and encouraging other countries to do so, the United States is telling human rights defenders to defend human rights in a way that is clinical, antiseptic, and free of critiques of those you consider human rights violators. Of course, this is both an intellectual and practical oxymoron since equidistant to the defense of human rights; defenders must be free to render criticism without fear of requital. It is what defending human rights are about.
Despite representations to the contrary, the policy on multilateral engagement of the United States is now that despite the existence of a problem we will not seek solutions to human rights abuses where there will be those in attendance who will criticize Israel. If this is the case, then the President has undermined his own argument on American arrogance. No country is above reproach for the way it addresses racism including the United States, Israel, Italy, Germany, France, Canada, and others.
The President's argument is reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt's stratagem, when as Chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights; she strenuously objected to the United Nations hearing the NAACP's "An Appeal to the World," a document which detailed the scourge of racism in the United States. In fact, she threatened to resign from the NAACP's Board of Directors because she thought the petition would embarrass the United States on the world stage. The President simply cannot have it both ways; he cannot call for engaging the international community when it suits his interest and refuse to engage when it does not. It is he and his administration who have acutely criticized the most recent Bush administration's commitment to multilateral negotiations as being off target. He seeks a seat on the Human Rights Council but then chooses which human rights are worthy of U.S. attention?
"The sad truth is that countries professing to want to avoid a reprise of the contentious 2001 racism conference are now the ones triggering the collapse of a global consensus on the fight against racism," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "As these Western governments demanded, the negotiated text for the review conference upholds freedom of expression and avoids singling out Israel. But these governments couldn't take 'yes' for an answer and are boycotting the conference anyway."
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is associate dean at Georgetown University and the author of The The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post-Racial America.