NEW YORK (JTA) — In allowing U.S. representatives to attend consultations this week in Geneva, in a serious attempt to detoxify the Durban Review Conference in April, President Obama has taken one of his first concrete steps to show the world that the United States is not afraid to engage and on our own terms.
Rather than immediately recasting the confrontational image perceived by so many during most of the Bush years, the new administration may take advantage of the lingering resentment and apprehension as well as Barack Obama’s credibility as an agent of progress and change.
The world and the United Nations have been optimistically curious about Obama’s internationalist agenda and his new team. As those preparing the new U.S. strategy know well, "new politics" has not overtaken the United Nations or many of the regimes represented at its headquarters in New York and Geneva. The U.N.’s notoriously cynical human rights agenda is no exception.
By exacting a price for joining the Durban process and other high-profile human rights mechanisms, and possibly even giving a second chance to the International Criminal Court, the post-Bush United States might be able to strike a better deal if it does so before the diplomatic swords are turned into ploughshares. The American Jewish community should be a natural advocate for this approach.
Most immediately, the Durban Review process, following up on the U.N.’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, is both a threat and an opportunity to show that Washington is unwilling to let the fight against racism be hijacked without a fight.
European governments will be hoping to avoid a boycott of Durban II, and U.S. participation will give them tremendous cover. Having made a non-decision under President Bush not to participate in the review of commitments from the infamous 2001 Durban conference, the United States must now be wooed to attend.
The original conference, promoted as a global platform against racism, was commandeered easily by anti-Semitic and anti-Israel forces and left an indelible stain on the anti-racism agenda. If the internationally admired Obama administration does not send a delegation, millions of Europeans, Asians and Africans will be forced to reassess their support for so-called human rights crusaders and even the United Nations itself. The new administration already has demonstrated its good faith merely by participating in this week’s discussions.
Either of the two possible outcomes is preferrable to remaining on the sidelines. The consensus statement delivered by the European Union at last October’s Preparatory Committee session in Geneva avoided any acknowledgement of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel focus of Durban I or the blatant anti-Israel language already included for Durban II — a disappointment if not a surprise. By reinforcing the position of working-level diplomats with direct intervention by the president or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Washington can set out specific conditions for attending April’s review conference.
If the Europeans are unable or unwilling to stand up to those regimes using the universal fight against racism to demonize Israel, then world opinion will excuse the United States of Obama. If there are guarantees of a responsible outcome document, the United States can agree to see it through. If a renewed U.S. effort succeeds, the cause of fighting racism is strengthened and Israel is spared yet another unfair series of condemnations. If the approach fails, we will be able to remind European allies and U.N. leaders that even a good-faith U.S. effort was rebuked.
If Durban II is the first short-term test of whether the world’s ideal U.S. president can make a dent in the U.N.’s business as usual, the Human Rights Council is a medium-term opportunity.
The council was an over-promised and underprepared successor to the old Human Rights Commission. Ironically, while its first two terms have been even more focused on allegations against Israel — at the expense of most other countries — the council continues to enjoy widespread benefit of the doubt because it was hailed as the great salvation and the U.N. system sees no way back.
Durban II will come and go, but the Human Rights Council will be around for years, and there may be no better moment for the United States to enter with some advantage or even concessions.
To start, the United States can put governments on notice that Durban II is a test, and that if the review conference again brands Israel as the leading cause of racism worldwide, even with U.S. participation, there is no reason we should expect U.S. membership in the Human Rights Council to bring any better. Rather than wishing for our worst fears to be proven right, we should realize that Israel is best served by having the United States — the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
In the long run, more than fighting racism and anti-Semitism at Durban II or regularly reviewing the full range of human rights guarantees, the International Criminal Court is the best hope for putting thugs on notice that there are enforceable penalties for committing crimes against humanity.
Americans — specifically American Jews — were instrumental in conceiving the ICC, which the U.S. government subsequently rejected on the rationale that U.S. soldiers might be subject to prosecution. Its roots go back to the Nuremburg trials following World War II, where Hitler’s henchmen faced international justice for atrocities unprecedented in modern history. The ad hoc Nuremburg model has been replicated, most notably for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but a standing court to try individual perpetrators and allow societies to rehabilitate themselves is indispensable to ensuring peace and political stability.
With an expanded Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate and many Republicans still committed to U.S. moral leadership overseas, 2009 offers a new opportunity for the United States to address outstanding concerns from a position of strength and finally sign on to this fundamental instrument of international law.
Why should Jews or any Americans take a stand on an institution that often seems so corrupted and antithetical to our interests?
The United States and Jews around the world were instrumental in crafting the United Nations and its human rights instruments. We did not support the UN’s creation as a means of defending the Jewish state but as the best way to ensure justice and peace on Earth. We have allowed ourselves as a community to be dragged down to the level of our detractors, dignifying every unfair criticism with a phalanx of responses and counter-arguments.
We have ceded the moral high ground — not on the question of Israel not committing war crimes but on the principle that our role at the United Nations is to establish international standards of decency. By supporting an effort to re-engage the United Nations on human rights, we not only enable the United States to reinforce its moral authority and to better protect Israel diplomatically.
Most critically, since God chose the Israelites to be a light unto the nations and not to focus exclusively on our own survival, we endeavor to take back the United Nations and redeem the concept of universal human rights, which has been trivialized for far too long.
If Durban II and the Human Rights Council, as well as the Criminal Court, do not fulfill their potential, Israel surely will continue to face one-sided condemnation. More important, we will have failed in our obligation as Jews and our self-appointed mission as Americans. If our ideals mean anything, we must be willing to step up and say so in absolute terms as well as not only a political tactic. The lessons of the Holocaust must mean more than saving Jews from future annihilation, as imperative as that is. Even before Hitler and the pogroms and the Crusades, we had a sacred task to repair the world.
The reality of 192 dictatorships and democracies each owning a vote in the U.N. General Assembly is not going to change. President Obama has emphasized repeatedly that this is the imperfect world the United States seeks to lead toward the right path.
Despite the unpopularity of many U.S. leaders and policies during the past several years and at other times in history, most citizens of the world still see America as a beacon and an ideal. This is a tremendous asset and a unique burden. There is no time to waste.
(Shai Franklin is senior fellow for United Nations Affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.)