As U.N. Prepares for Anti-Racism Conference, U.S. Is Pressed to Say It Will Stay Away

By Patrick Goodenough | December 27, 2010 | 5:28 AM EST

Flags of member nations flying at United Nations headquarters in New York City. (U.N. Photo by Araujo Pinto)

( – A provocative plan to hold a United Nations anti-racism conference in New York City days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is moving ahead, after more than 100 U.N. member-states gave their approval in a post-midnight General Assembly vote late last week.

Earlier appeals for democracies to send a powerful message by voting against the measure – rather than abstaining as they had in a committee vote a month earlier – achieved limited success.

Only two European countries, Slovakia and Macedonia, shifted their positions from abstaining to voting “no.” Two small Pacific nations that had been absent in the November committee vote, Micronesia and Palau, voted “no” in the early hours of December 24.

The resolution passed in the General Assembly by 104-22, with 33 abstentions.

The other countries voting against the resolution were the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel, Marshall Islands and 13 European nations, including Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

By contrast, 28 countries across Europe abstained, including France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain. They were joined by Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa.

Next September’s event, known as “Durban III,” will mark the 10th anniversary of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, an event held in Durban, South Africa, alongside a gathering of non-governmental organizations.

The meetings were characterized by virulent attacks against Israel and the U.S., prompting the Bush administration and Israel to withdraw their delegations in protest, with then Secretary of State Colin Powell saying that a conference condoning “hateful language” could not be successful.

“Durban II,” a 2009 assembly in Geneva to review progress made in combating racism since the original conference, was similarly controversial, providing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a platform to condemn Israel and to allege that the Holocaust was a “pretext” for the establishment of the Jewish state. The U.S. and nine other Western countries boycotted the event.

Canada and Israel already have announced they will stay away from Durban III.

Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year, has called on the U.S. government to follow suit now, and to “encourage other responsible nations to do the same.”

A similar appeal came from a bipartisan group of 18 U.S. senators, who in a letter organized by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said the administration should take a stand now by “removing itself from association with Durban III and encouraging other nations to do the same.”

“It is important that the United States send a strong signal that another anti-Semitic and anti-American Durban Conference particularly held so close to the tenth anniversary and location of the worst terrorist attack in American history is unacceptable,” they wrote in the letter addressed to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.

“We can send this signal by making clear now that the United States will not participate in this gathering.”

The Obama administration, which prioritized closer engagement with the U.N., announced its decision not to attend Durban II several weeks before the April 2009 event, citing attempts once again to single out Israel for criticism and accusations of racism.

This time the administration additionally has objected to the timing and the venue for Durban III – next September 21, at U.N. headquarters in N.Y.C.

“It will be an especially sensitive time for the people of New York and a repeat of the vitriol sadly experienced at past Durban-related events risks undermining the relationship we have worked hard to strengthen over the past few years between the United States and the U.N.,” U.S. envoy John Sammis said during an earlier committee meeting considering the plans.

After Friday’s vote, Rice said the U.S. had voted against the resolution “because the Durban Declaration process has included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we do not want to see that commemorated.”

Joining Gillibrand in signing the letter to Rice were Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii), Mike Johanns (R-Nebr.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow