State Dept. Confirms: U.S. Will Not Attend U.N. ‘Durban’ Racism Event

By Patrick Goodenough | May 5, 2021 | 4:31am EDT
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressing with Durban II conference in Geneva in 2009, calls Israel the world's "most cruel and racist regime." (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressing with Durban II conference in Geneva in 2009, calls Israel the world's "most cruel and racist regime." (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The Biden administration will not take part in events at the United Nations in the fall marking the 20th anniversary of the deeply controversial World Conference on Racism and the declaration it produced, a State Department official spokesperson confirmed on background in response to queries on Tuesday.

The U.N. General Assembly in a resolution last December decided to hold a one-day event in New York during the high-level opening of the UNGA session in September. The daylong meeting would mark the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA).

The resolution said the meeting would “adopt a short and concise political declaration aimed at mobilizing political will at the national, regional and international levels for the full and effective implementation” of the DDPA.

At a time when the issue of racism is at center stage in the United States and around the world, a U.S. decision not to participate will likely draw strong criticism from some quarters – particularly as the administration has made engagement with the U.N. a foreign policy priority.

But, the State Department official made the administration’s position clear: “The United States will not attend or participate in any events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action or the World Conference on Racism, which preceded it.”

Named for the South African port city that hosted the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 – just days before the 9/11 terror attack on America – the Durban process had been plagued since the outset by controversy over a campaign to label Israel an “apartheid” state.

The DDPA that came out of that conference identified “Palestinian people under foreign occupation” under a subheading, “Victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

No country other than Israel was singled out in the same direct way, prompting critics to say the initiative amounted to a revival of the notorious Zionism equals racism resolution, passed by the General Assembly in 1975 and only repealed in a U.S.-led push in 1991.

Concerns about anti-Israel bias and the issue of slavery reparations prompted the Bush administration to send a downgraded delegation to the conference in Durban, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell pulled the delegation out early, arguing that an event condoning “hateful language” that singles out Israel for “censure and abuse” could not be successful. Israel also walked out.

In parallel to the conference, a forum of non-governmental organizations accused Israel of genocide; abused and shouted down pro-Israel speakers; while pro-Palestinian NGOs disseminated anti-Semitic caricatures and posters equating Israel with Nazi Germany.

The Obama administration boycotted Durban follow-up conferences, in Geneva in 2009 (dubbed “Durban II”) and in New York in 2011 (“Durban III”). At the 2009 event, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel the world’s “most cruel and racist regime.”

The U.S. was not alone in boycotting those meetings. Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Poland stayed away in both 2009 and 2011.  Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, and France boycotted the 2011 event.

‘Poisoned by anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias’

No Durban-related events were held during the Trump administration, but when it voted against the U.N. operating budget at the end of last year, it pointed to the planned 2021 “Durban IV” in explaining its “no” vote. (Israel was the only other country to vote no; the $3.2 billion budget passed 168-2.)

“For two decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations have urged other member-states to recognize the fatal flaws in the Durban Declaration and join us in its rejection,” then-U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft told the assembly on December 31.

“I am reminded of a quote from legendary human rights proponent and Holocaust survivor Congressman Tom Lantos, who was a member of the U.S. delegation to the original Durban conference, and remarked that it ‘provided the world with a glimpse into the “abyss” of international hate, discrimination, and indeed, racism.’”

“Twenty years on, there remains nothing about the Durban Declaration to celebrate or to endorse,” Craft said. “It is poisoned by anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias. It encourages restrictions on the freedom of expression. It exists to divide and discriminate and runs contrary to the laudable goal of combating racism and racial discrimination.”

Given that history of denunciation of the Durban process, the Biden administration raised eyebrows at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March when acting Assistant Secretary Lisa Peterson delivered a joint statement on racism that included a reference to the DDPA.

“Recalling the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action,we are committed to workingwithin our nations and with the international community to address and combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, while upholding freedom of expression,” it read.

One hundred and fifty-five other U.N. member-states put their names to that statement, including all of the countries that boycotted previous Durban events – with the exception of Israel.

Asked about the inclusion of the reference to the DDPA in that statement, the State Department official said the “brief reference to the fact that the Durban conference happened 20 years ago … in no way reflects a change in our position regarding the problematic portions of the document or the process that led to its creation.”

“The Biden administration has put racial justice at the top of its priorities, both in multilateral fora and at home,” the spokesperson said.

“The United States also remains deeply committed to combatting anti-Semitism at home and abroad.  Furthermore, the United States stands with Israel and has always shared its concerns over the Durban process’s anti-Israel sentiment, use as a forum for anti-Semitism, and freedom of expression issues.”

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