In 2001, my late husband Congressman Tom Lantos led, at the urging of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the U.S. delegation’s walk out from the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. In a piece he later published about his experiences at Durban, Tom wrote, “To many of us present…it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who, in her role as secretary-general of the conference, failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track.”
Even before the conference, Iran, Iraq, and other rejectionist Middle Eastern governments had made clear their intent to commandeer the conference to denounce the policies and legitimacy of the state of Israel, while ignoring ongoing terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens and refusing to criticize human rights abuses in any other specific country in the world. The United States and several European and moderate Arab delegations made a concerted effort to eliminate this vitriolic language, but those diplomatic initiatives collapsed when Commissioner Robinson spoke in favor of a one-sided approach. Although Commissioner Robinson did much to nurture the global dialogue on racism leading up to the 2001 conference, her actions at Durban were troubling, to say the least.
Today Mary Robinson is being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award that my own husband received posthumously in 2008. While I am deeply disappointed by the decision to honor former Commissioner Robinson in this manner, I also feel that this provides a good opportunity to reflect on the failures of Durban. As Tom wrote, “One lesson of Durban is clear – strong, principled leadership from the
United States and the United Nations is critical in order to prevent hostile forces within the international community from hijacking vital multilateral institutions.”
Earlier this year President Obama rightly decided that the United States would not send a delegation to the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, noting that conference organizers were determined to expressly endorse the unacceptable resolutions of the 2001 Durban Conference. That may not have been an easy decision for an administration committed to increased engagement, but it was an essential step. It is my hope that this decision and others like it will help to eventually restore the U.N. Human Rights Council as a force for promoting tolerance and human dignity.