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Harold Koh on the Durban Process

Unusually for him, Harold Koh, the Obama administration’s nominee for Legal Adviser to the State Department, has been silent on the question of whether or not the U.S. should have attended the Durban Review Conference. Likely, he realizes it’s a no win: support the boycott and alienate the Left, or oppose it, and attack the declared policy of the administration that nominated him. But we can glean some insight into his point of view by looking at what Koh said about the first Durban conference in 2001.

According to Koh, who spoke on the record for the PBS NewsHour, the Bush Administration’s failure to send Colin Powell to the Durban conference was a “missed opportunity . . . for the United States to help shape the emerging global agenda on race discrimination.”  It was also, according to Koh, a “missed opportunity” for the “articulate” Powell to tell “a story about how one individual suffered discrimination and was able nevertheless to become our Secretary of State.” One wonders if this assertion that Powell was particularly suitable to serve as the U.S. spokesman at a conference on racism would be uncontroversial if it had been made by a conservative.

But Koh’s overall point is clear: engage, engage, engage. No indignity is too severe, no draft document too horrible, no list of attendees too heavily stacked, to justify boycotting an international event. According to Koh, the U.S. should “not stat[e] some conditions that we didn’t think would be met before the conference came to life.” Apparently, therefore, the U.S. should only state conditions that it believes will be met. Specifically, the 2001 Durban conference equated Zionism and racism because “we boycotted the last two conferences, and what that did was to make sure that the Zionism-as-racism issue arose again.”

Koh makes it quite clear that he entirely rejects this claim about Zionism, but his desire is always to attend to state the U.S. case and in the hope of being able to “water down the language.” According to him, there is nothing at all embarrassing or wrong about attending a conference, on an official basis, where Israel is pilloried:

The fact of the matter is the U.S. goes to conferences every week, every month. I attended many myself in which the issue of Zionism as racism came up.

There is a good deal that could be said about Koh’s aim being limited to “water[ing] down the language,” or his belief that the U.S. should not disrupt conferences by imposing unacceptable conditions in advance. But what strikes me most forcefully is Koh’s willingness to sit in the room as the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor — his position from 1998 to 2000 — while speakers rail against Israel.

When I think of these anti-Semitic, hate-filled conferences, I am revolted: out of simple self-respect, I have no desire to be present, and I would feel that even more strongly if I were serving as a representative of the United States. American diplomats must rebut these sentiments when confronted with them, but it is wrong to lend American credibility to hate by deliberately sending official representatives to listen to it.

No matter what you say afterwards, the tyrants see that you are willing to reply to their invitations, to sit still when they speak, and to accept that the forum over which they are lording themselves has value.  This kind of diplomacy does not frighten liberty’s enemies, it emboldens them. It is the Oliver Twist school of diplomacy: please sir, may I have some more?



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