GBCS Directors Urge Obama to Send Delegation to Racism Review Conference

March 26, 2009

U.N. conference to review progress since South Africa event that U.S. walked out of in protest.


WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Board of Directors of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) issued a statement this week that urges the Obama administration to send a U.S. delegation to the Durban Review Conference on Racism in Geneva, Switzerland, April 20-24.


In their statement, GBCS's directors declare that silence and inaction are not the ways to engage the painful issues stemming from racism. The statement calls on President Obama to fulfill his commitment to diplomacy and engagement in U.S. foreign policy.


The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries and GBCS will send delegations to Geneva to review progress since the U.N. World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001, just days before the atrocities of 9/11. The United States and Israel walked out of the Durban conference in protest of a resolution that equated Zionism with racism.


In Durban, United Methodists were part of a faith-based presence, which produced a 10-point Ecumenical Caucus statement that declared: "Racism is a sin." The 10-point statement was read to the media on September 5 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The 10 points are available on the World Council of Churches' website: www.wcc-coe.org.)


GBCS Assistant General Secretary Liberato Bautista chaired the committee that prepared the 10-point statement. He directs GBCS's United Nations and International Affairs ministry. He is also president of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CoNGO).


"Some quarters described the Durban Conference as a 'fiasco,'" Bautista said, "due to bitter wrangling on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and slavery reparations. The United States and Israel walked out just before the resolution by Arab nations was dropped from the final conference declaration."


Some U.N.-member states and non-governmental organizations are wary of the review conference, according to Bautista. He said they fear conferees may use the platform to attack Israel. The draft declaration of the review conference contained references to Israel and Palestine, as well as to "defamation of religion."


Bautista identified paragraphs in the draft that were problematic to the United States and others, including Israel, Canada, and Australia. All have withdrawn from the review conference.  


Offensive paragraphs in the draft include the following:

Paragraph 53: "Acknowledges that a most disturbing phenomenon is the intellectual and ideological validation of Islamophobia...";

Paragraph 160:  "Calls on States to develop, and where appropriate to incorporate, permissible limitations on the exercise of the right to freedom and of expression into national legislation" (relating to the defamation of religion, which the U.S. identifies as a threat to freedom of speech and expression);

Paragraph 156: "Urges States that have not yet condemned, apologized and paid reparations for the grave and massive violations as well as the massive human suffering caused by slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism and genocide, to do so at the earliest."

The Obama administration inherited a Bush administration stance that distanced itself from the process, according to Bautista. He said President Obama "reengaged" by sending a team to Geneva to explore rewriting the outcome document in hopes of dropping objectionable language. The team returned dissatisfied with revised draft language, though.


According to the Irish Times, a new compromise draft, circulated to diplomatic missions, removed all specific references to Israel and the Palestinians. "Passages relating to so-called 'defamation of religion' were also dropped from the reworked draft," the Times reported.


"Prior to this reworked version, the Obama administration said it will not officially participate," Bautista pointed out. "Instead, the administration said it will send a 'note taker,' who will not sit behind the U.S. delegation name."


Bautista said there are other active calls for the United States to send a delegation to Geneva. He mentioned the TransAfrica Forum, which described U.S. non-engagement as a "painful irony" because it is happening under its first African-American president. The forum asserted that U.S. non-engagement will be felt throughout the African-American and African-Diaspora communities. The forum urged the Obama administration to reconsider its decision, participate in the preparatory meetings and send an official delegation.


The General Board of Church and Society is one of four international general program boards of The United Methodist Church, which has more than 11 million members worldwide. The board's primary areas of ministry are Advocacy, Education and Leadership Formation, United Nations and International Affairs, and resourcing these areas for the denomination. It has offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and at the Church Center at the United Nations in New York City.


The GBCS statement follows:


The Durban Review Conference on Racism

Geneva, April 20-24, 2009

The General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) of The United Methodist Church urges President Barack Obama to send a U.S. delegation to the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, this April. The conference is a follow up to the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa.


The United States cannot afford to vacillate on such an urgent issue as racism. U.S. participation in Geneva will demonstrate President Obama's commitment to diplomacy and engagement in U.S. foreign policy.


Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance are crucial issues. We cannot relegate them to silence and inaction. Silence will only postpone the debates. Inaction will only exacerbate the many ways people are being violated.


It would be disappointing if the Obama administration chose inaction, or worse, absence, from the Geneva conference. It is imperative that we discuss racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance in an open debate. Engaging the issues now will surely help usher in, sooner than later, a world that is diverse and plural, equal and equitable, just and peaceable.


We must deal honestly and openly with racism that for too long has perpetuated violence and has killed far too many in the name of slavery, colonialism and occupation. Surely, we have reached a point in human history where we can abandon racism and hatred, and instead pursue tolerance and equality. Abandonment of hate and pursuit of peace and justice cannot be postponed, let alone ignored.


The Durban Review Conference is an opportunity for members of the world community to speak openly with one another to resolve the issues stemming from racism. We must not be sidetracked by contentions over our varied understandings of racism, painful and dissonant as they may be.


Differences can be turned into blessings as we collectively identify the many ways to address the complexity of racism. Embracing the exchange of views will no doubt develop advocacies.


The General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) holds a common purpose with the United Nations in pursuing human rights, social justice, sustainable development and a just, peaceable governance in communities and nations. To this end we, as GBCS, will be present at the Durban Review Conference.


We therefore urge President Obama's leadership in healing the painful wounds of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.