Three words no one expected to hear so soon: “Durban plus 5.”
The General Assembly is poised to authorize a review conference in the customary five years to assess the progress made toward combating racism and bigotry, goals set out in the tumultuous $11 million U.N. anti-racism meeting held in South Africa last September.
In a draft resolution circulated by Venezuela, the General Assembly would stress “the need for maintaining the political will and momentum displayed during the Conference” an image that will mystify anyone who attended the Durban conference and spent the days dodging incendiary anti-Zionism protests and angry victims’ groups, and the nights trying to follow marathon negotiations.
Unresolved language condemning Israel proved the major obstacle in a gathering so large it filled both the conference complex and a nearby cricket stadium.
The volume of the Middle East debate was so high it literally drowned out thousands of other advocates, including those seeking reparations for slavery, an end to anti-migrant attacks, limits on Internet hate speech and freedom for India’s “untouchables,” among other issues.
“Durban will go down in history as a missed opportunity to advance a noble agenda and as a serious breakdown in United Nations diplomacy,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and a member of the U.S. delegation.
Mr. Lantos has just published in the new Fletcher Forum of World Affairs magazine (www.Fletcherforum.org) a 22-page “insider account” of the U.S. and U.N. negotiations leading up to Durban, including efforts to reconcile competing texts that grew further apart as tempers raged.
In short, Mr. Lantos, a lifelong human rights advocate, blames nearly everyone involved for what he calls “the Durban debacle.”
He denounces “hatemongering” Arab and Islamic fundamentalists for “hijacking” the conference, and the more moderate elements for failing to stop them. He singles out Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, as well as the Palestinian, Syrian and Pakistani delegations, for their intransigence.
But the congressman also says the Bush administration had antagonized allies and adversaries alike by forging an early unilateralist agenda and failing to see growing resentment.
Mr. Lantos complains that U.N. High Commissoner for Human Rights Mary Robinson failed to exercise leadership in negotiations and criticizes her willingness to equate Palestinian suffering with historic Jewish persecution.
Mr. Lantos was the one who, three days into the Durban conference, was charged with explaining to a swarming international press corps why the United States was pulling out.
The hysteria of that moment crowded out nuance and context, and with his article, Mr. Lantos appears to be trying to set the record straight.
Many participants in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance will no doubt reject many of his key arguments for example, that the situation in the Middle East is purely political rather than religious in nature or his recollections of whether the negotiations over compromise language were ever really that close.
But clearly the pain of Durban lingers. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior met with Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week and warned that the United Nations is being used to promote “this delegitimization or even demonization of the Jewish people and the state of Israel.”
One of his examples was Durban.
New WFP chief
James T. Morris, an American businessman with a background in public-sector management, was named last week to run the U.N. World Food Program. He succeeds Catherine Bertini, also an American, who leaves the Rome-based agency in March.
Mr. Morris has since 1989 served as the chairman and CEO of IWC Resources, the parent company of the Indianapolis water company, which is the largest privately held utility in the United States. He is also the president of the Indiana University board of trustees.
Prior to this, he was resident of the Lilly Endowment, one of the largest charitable foundations in the United States.
The WFP last year fed 83 million people in 83 countries. Washington is the single largest contributor, providing about half the organization’s budget in cash and grain.
Betsy Pisik may be reached via e-mail at UNear@aol.com.