Politics as Usual at the UN
September 1, 2001
The UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa recently adjourned. If you heard or read any of the Press coverage of this event, you know that the organizers and participants regretted that the conference became politicized. Disputes over Israel’s responsibility for the violence in the Middle East and calls for reparations or at least an apology for slavery disrupted the conference. Israel and the United States walked out and other delegations, notably Canada’s, had unkind things to say about it. All of this distracted from the real work of the conference, helping those who suffer from racism. Or so we were told. In fact, the exact opposite is true.
Like all UN conferences of this sort, the real work of the racism conference was political agitation. It was never intended to be a serious discussion of racism or anything else. Its sole purpose was to push various political agendas, most of which had nothing to do with racism. The difference this time was that the organizers lost control of the process leading up to the conference. As a result, the conference blew up in their faces.
Normally, the agenda for such a conference and the declaration that it will end with are haggled over and worked out in preliminary sessions before the conference even begins. In these preliminary sessions, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) lobby so that their preferred wording ends up in the declaration.
In the case of the racism conference, for example, Arab states tried to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by getting the conference to declare Israel racist. Many African countries pushed to get language included that made colonialism and slavery the explanation for their problems and more money from western countries the solution. NGOs worked to support these claims and to get other pet projects and concerns mentioned. So the racism conference ends up talking about sexual orientation, poverty, AIDS and any number of other things.
Although the conference declaration is not binding on the states that attend, the conference also includes an action plan so that the NGOs and others can put pressure on states to live up to its terms. For this reason, states that are the targets of the declaration’s claims resist them. Deals are made and compromises struck, therefore, in a fashion that would make the supposed smoked filled rooms of American politics seem like genteel debating societies.
All this bargaining takes a lot of time because in addition to the 189 members of the UN, there are hundreds and hundreds of NGOs involved. The list of those in consultative status to the UN takes up 59 pages. The list of those merely accredited to the conference contains hundreds more.
The preliminary work of the racism conference ran out of time. The compromises were not reached. So, at the conference, acrimony reigned.
While the fighting at the conference dismayed its organizers, for us it was an opportunity to see the conference and all the others like it that the UN runs for what they are. Beyond the sessions on self-esteem building for gypsies and music groups portraying man’s relation to nature by imitating frog sounds, we saw the raw politics of the UN. These conferences are nothing more than occasions for political agitation, at which participants relentlessly and ruthlessly push for their advantage—at the expense of the United States and its allies.
The hypocrisy is stunning. Most of the countries participating in the conference allow little or no freedom to those unfortunate enough to live within their borders but they do not hesitate to lecture others about human rights. The UN official who ran the conference claimed that ":civil society,": networks of private organizations, would enforce its declaration, forgetting apparently that most of the countries at the conference do not fully respect the rights of free speech and assembly let alone tolerate civil society.
This hypocrisy, so characteristic of the UN, is the reason why the racism conference and others like it should never be taken seriously. Political haggling and vendettas were not a distraction from the real work of the conference but its only work.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.