Open Letter to President Barack Obama
This is a letter written by dozens of human rights groups and activists in the United States, urging President Barack Obama to rethink his decision to boycott the United Nations-sponsored anti-racism conference.
Why the United States Should Stop Refusing to Participate in a Global Conference on Racism
Dear President Barack Obama,We, the undersigned individuals and organizations dedicated to fighting racial injustice and promoting human rights domestically and globally received your recent decision to boycott the Durban Review Conference with profound disappointment.
Recognizing that your stated objections to the conference have been addressed, we are confident that your Administration will be reversing its decision in time to participate in the conference and its remaining preparatory meetings scheduled to take place in April.
Refusing to Discuss Racism on a Global Platform is Inconsistent with a Policy of Engagement with the International Community
As you know, the Durban Review Conference is one of the most important international platforms for discussing the elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances. Given the brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States, your Administration has much to contribute to this discussion. A boycott would be inconsistent with your policy of engagement with the international community. A policy of engagement requires discussion with governments and institutions even if one does not agree with them as demonstrated by your statement last week to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran that your Administration is committed to seeking "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." How can your Administration engage in any manner with the international community if it has no representation at the discussion table?
The United States Should be Fighting for the Strongest Protections against Racism
The Durban Review process has offered a sophisticated and comprehensive framework for advancing racial equality including concrete guidelines for addressing the link between poverty, racism, sexism, and multiple forms of discrimination; advancing migrant rights; addressing youth violence; providing access to quality education, health care, and adequate housing; and advancing transparent governance in the fight for racial equality. We expect your Administration will not only engage in the process but will also work to ensure that the final outcome offers the strongest and most comprehensive framework for eliminating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerances. This is critical for progress in the domestic and global fight for racial and economic justice.
Specific Objections Raised do not Warrant a Boycott
We are concerned by the reasons put forth by your Administration for its refusal to engage in the conference. Notwithstanding that changes have been made to accommodate your Administration's specific objections, we do not believe that these objections should warrant a decision to boycott the conference. As we mentioned before, you recently demonstrated your Administration's willingness to engage in dialogue with governments with which you do not always agree such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we applaud that decision. Why would your Administration pursue a different policy now that it is time to discuss how to fight and eliminate racism for people in the United States and the rest of the world? How can the United States affirm freedom of expression - even for hate speech - if it refuses even to be present to listen to the views of others?
The United States Must Not Attempt to Ignore our History of Slavery
We are troubled that your Administration pushed for the withdrawal of language related to reparations, reference to the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity, and the overall weakening of the efforts related to people of African Descent. We recall your own speech on March 18, 2008 that we need to "remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow." We also urge you to consider the bill H.R. 40 reintroduced by Representative Conyers in January calling for the establishment of a commission to examine the institution of slavery and current forms of racial discrimination, as well as to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies. We believe it will help illuminate the importance of discussing these issues both in the United States and globally.
The United States Must Engage the Global Fight for Racial Justice in Good Faith
It is regrettable that your Administration made its current decision on whether to participate in the Durban Review Conference based on one meeting. One meeting is inadequate for meaningful engagement in the process especially since the process has been ongoing since 2006 not including the time and preparation put into the 2001 World Conference Against Racism (WCAR). The actions of your Administration leave the impression that you are willing to ignore an important opportunity to advance racial equality if it is politically expedient.
The Current Position of Non-Participation is worse than that of the Bush Administration
A boycott by your Administration would be the first time in recent history that the United States has refused to participate in a United Nations conference. This position is even more radical than that of the Bush Administration's as the former Administration at least attended the preceding conference on race before withdrawing. We hope that your Administration will not squander this important opportunity to push for racial equality on the global stage and will instead send a diverse and high-level delegation including representatives from the non-governmental community.
A United States Refusal to Discuss Racism Encourages Other Countries to do the same
The current decision by your Administration not only affects the United States, but also provides cover for other countries that are reluctant to engage in a meaningful discussion on advancing racial equality to boycott the discussion as well. A United States boycott would have a long-term damaging effect on the global fight against racism.
In closing, we are reminded again of a speech you made a year ago insisting that race is an issue that this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We applauded your thought-provoking speech then as it echoed basic American values of equality and fairness and reminded us of the importance of engaging in mature and constructive dialogue on race. We urge you not to ignore this global discussion on race. This is an issue that is extremely important for making genuine progress in the United States and advancing peace worldwide. It is also a priority for many of us who supported your campaign for change. Again, we look forward to your timely and substantive engagement in the Durban Review Conference.
The list of signatories, including the National Lawyers Guild, can be found in this Ha'aretz article. There is also commentary on it here. The Australian Jewish Democratic Society is urging attendance, pointing out that:
. . . only six of the 341 paragraphs on Durban 1 singled out Israel, while there was also a resolution stating that the Holocaust “must never be forgotten” as detailed in this post. I also talk about it here and here.