The United Nations Conference to review the 2001 Durban Conference on Racismstarts in Geneva this week. The conference has been preceded by many calls for it to be boycotted by western countries on the basis that it would allegedly be running an agenda of anti-semitism.
Participating in something when you strongly disapprove of the agenda, process or outcome, runs the risk being seen to be giving legitimacy to something you are fundamentally opposed to.
However, refusing to engage with people or issues that you disagree with is one of the ways most guaranteed to maintain or increase hostility or misunderstanding. This makes non-participation a very significant step to take, particularly on such an important topic which has worldwide relevance.
This sort of tightrope is navigated every day by diplomats, governments and many non-government organisations. Given the ongoing blight of racism is still so widespread and damaging in the world, and the unfortunately quite widespread habit of labelling any usage of the term as ‘politically correct’, it would be a real missed opportunity if many countries felt themselves unable to participate in this week’s conference.
It is understandable that the deep divide over Israel and Palestine – with Jewish and Muslim religions often being seen as a proxy – can permeate many aspects of international relations and commentary. But those difficulties and sensitivities should not be allowed to derail ongoing efforts to address underlying issues or wider ones.
In a piece on Australian Policy Online, Hilary Charlesworth and Susan Harris Rimmer, experts in human rights at the Australian National University, recognise that conferences such as these are far from perfect. They also take a realistic and balanced view of the issue.
We should take a larger and longer-term view of the value of the Geneva Review Conference. The 2001 Durban Declaration contains detailed analyses of racism against classes of people such as refugees, migrants and Indigenous peoples and against specific peoples such as the Roma, Jews and Muslims. It called for strong anti-discrimination legislation, improved education about racism and better remedies and resources for victims of racism.
At the Geneva Review Conference governments will report on their implementation of the commitments they made eight years ago at Durban. The conference will allow both the progress made in combating racism and the many remaining problems to be assessed, national experience to be shared and attempts made to devise better solutions.
Hopefully there will be some coverage of what comes out of the conference, and what progress has or hasn’t been made in combating and reducing racism over the last decade. The Israel-Palestine issue is an important one, both for its influence over global politics and of course especially for the many people directly affected. But it is unlikely to benefit anybody if it becomes the only frame of reference used to look at any issue through.
UPDATE: The Australian government has officially announced it will not be attending or participating in the racism conference, joining the USA, Israel, Canada and Italy.
UPDATE II: Add the Netherlands to that.