Why We Can’t Boycott Geneva

Barack Obama has gone to great lengths to distance himself from the Bush administration. So why is he taking a page from the Bush playbook and threatening to boycott the United Nations Conference on Racism?

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Despite the historic election of President Barack Obama, racism is alive and well. But it’s not just a U.S. problem. Racial discrimination may be the scourge of our time, and if there is any government that ought to understand that, it’s ours. Yet, the Obama administration is debating whether to participate in a United Nations meeting in Geneva next week about what should be done to eliminate racial discrimination around the world. If the U.S. decides to boycott the conference, that would be a tragedy.

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to distinguish itself from the Bush administration in almost every area of governance. And it has been crystal clear about the differences. But now it is actually debating whether to adopt a position that led the Bush administration to walk out of the conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001, citing the “inappropriate” references to Israel in the draft of the closing document. Critics argued that the 2001 conference singled out Israel as a racist state.

America’s absence from a global re-affirmation to end racism in 2001 was incongruous and was deeply disappointing to the world movement against racism. But that was the Bush administration. It’s a new day in America, and as President Barack Obama continues to tell us, there’s a new way for America to approach the world, to regain its moral position while working with its neighbors in the world Family of Nations.

So why has the Obama administration promised Israel and American Jewish groups that it won’t show up unless the conference makes no mention of Israel? The conference organizers said OK and deleted everything America demanded from the draft document. But now, the demands have changed. Those calling for a boycott insist that the Durban II Declaration must make no mention that the 2001 conference ever happened. 

Is this fair play in the world Family of Nations? Is this a way to open new channels of dialogue with the Muslim world? We have to be willing to be a part of the process if we want to usher in a new era of peace and international cooperation. At this moment, President Obama has tremendous goodwill to mobilize for change. That can’t happen if we sit on the sidelines. We owe it to the global fight against racism to do everything possible to make this conference a success.

Gay J. McDougall is an American human rights lawyer and currently serves as UN Independent Expert on minority issues.