(CNSNews.com) – As a U.S. delegation attempts to salvage a controversial United Nations conference on racism, a gathering of lawmakers from mostly Western countries laid down a new marker: never again should international institutions be used to legitimize anti-Semitism.
Amid what researchers say is a surge of attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions not seen in more than half a century, some 100 lawmakers from more than 35 countries met in London to discuss the problem and ways to combat it.
An issue of concern for many of the participants is the upcoming Durban Review Conference (“Durban II”), an April 20-24 gathering of U.N. member states in Geneva. The conference is a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa.
In a declaration issued at the end of the London meeting – the first of its kind to be hosted by the U.K. Foreign Office – delegates said the international community “must not be witness or party to another gathering like Durban in 2001.”
They called on their governments and the U.N. “never again to allow the institutions of the international community to be abused for the purposes of trying to establish any legitimacy for anti-Semitism.”
The 2001 conference was intended to confront racial discrimination worldwide.
But critics say that it, together with a parallel non-governmental forum, was hijacked by Islamic states and their allies and misused to promote an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish agenda. The Bush administration walked out to protest what it said was the singling out of Israel “for censure and abuse.”
Israel also withdrew, and some of the language targeting Israel in the final conference declaration was amended. It retained a reference to “the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” being among “victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
Over the following years, Washington did not participate in Durban follow-up processes or preparations for Durban II, and withheld funding for the latter.
The Obama administration reversed course this week by sending a delegation to four days of consultations in Geneva “to try to change the direction in which the Review Conference is heading,” before making a final decision on whether or not to participate.
In a statement as the talks began, delegation head Mark Storella summarized the key concerns the U.S. has about the “outcome document” drafted for the April conference – “it singles out Israel for criticism, places unacceptable restrictions on freedom of expression, under the guise of ‘defaming religion,’ and calls for payment of reparations for slavery.”
“We will work with you this week in the hopes that this process will move in a positive direction that would allow the United States to participate in future preparatory meetings and, if possible, in the Durban Review Conference in April,” he said.
Addressing the London anti-Semitism meeting, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office minister and former top U.N. bureaucrat, said Britain was coordinating closely with Washington on the Durban II preparations, and “will work with the U.S. to try and make sure that we get a good outcome.”
If a “fair and balanced” outcome was not possible, he said, “we are extremely clear … we will withdraw.”
“I myself was at the first Durban Conference and have never seen such disgraceful event in quite a long international life and quite a few international conferences,” Malloch-Brown added, calling it “a low point of international affairs and one that I certainly won’t be party to again.”
“So while we will fight to get a good resolution and fight to make sure that reason and decency prevails at the conference, we are very much there at the moment on a sort of last warning. But if we can’t prevail we’re not going to stay and see a conference whose outcome we can’t accept.”
To date only Canada and Israel have formally announced that they will stay away from Durban II, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has called on “the free world” to follow suit.
’‘Jump into the fray, set clear red lines’
The U.S. decision to participate in the planning at the eleventh hour continues to draw mixed responses.
Critics who hope to see the U.S. and others boycott the event say it is much too late in the day to change the direction, noting that the preparations have been underway since 2006. U.S. participation in the planning now only lend legitimacy to a flawed process and could weaken the stand taken by some Western countries, they say.
“Several European countries and other nations have pressed hard to delete the offending passages [in the outcome document] without success. Many of them have said they will not participate if the changes are not made,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said. “U.S. entry into the process at this time risks extending the negotiations and delaying the withdrawal of those countries.”
On the other hand, the U.S. decision has been welcomed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who urged all countries “to engage constructively on all the outstanding issues of the outcome document,” and by some human rights groups in the U.S.
Human Rights First and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights praised the decision, and urged the administration “to work to ensure that the conference advances rather than undermines the protection of fundamental rights, and to engage with others to press for that outcome.”
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who is Jewish, also backed the move, saying in a statement it was “critical that the United States regain its moral voice at the U.N. by jumping into the fray and stipulating clear red lines for re-focusing Durban II, including the removal of language in the outcome document attacking Israel or singling it out for criticism.”
Gregg Rickman, who was appointed by the Bush administration in 2006 as the first U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, is among those urging the government to boycott the conference.
“How can the United States possibly be a part of this insanity?” he asked in an op-ed published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Wednesday. “If we join this charade, we extend this dishonor through our presence, sullying ourselves in the process.”
Rickman, who noted the leading roles countries like Iran and Libya are playing in the planning process, said, “We must do the only honorable deed and boycott Durban II, denying the world’s terrorists and bigots the privilege of our legitimizing presence among them.”
The U.S. branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a pro-Israel organization, has launched a petition urging Obama to boycott Durban II, arguing that “the agenda has been hijacked by some of the most egregious violators of human rights in the world.”