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On paper the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is an eminently laudable project — if you believe that the United Nations should promote grand statements that promote norms of good behavior. But the preparations for this meeting, and its predecessor, suggest that good intentions are not enough. Instead of fighting racism, the conference looks set to enshrine it as policy by singling out Israel for criticism and equating Zionism with racism.

Meetings like this undermine the U.N. and empower its critics. Acquiescing to this agenda is a mistake. The more countries protest against this meeting, the more hope there is for getting the U.N. back on track.

The first such conference was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. That meeting was dominated by discussions over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery. The United States and Israel walked out halfway through after it became apparent that attendees were going to spend most of their time condemning Israel, and ignoring virtually the rest of the world. The conference focus undermined respect for the U.N. in the mind of the U.S. administration, reinforcing a mind-set that saw the world body as discriminatory, misguided and unprepared to work on real problems.

There were hopes the next U.N. conference on racism, dubbed Durban II after its predecessor and scheduled for next month, would change its approach to restore legitimacy in both the institution and its work. The new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had indicated that it was prepared to rejoin deliberations if they were fair and unbiased.

But after dispatching representatives to preparatory meetings last month, the U.S. announced that it will boycott the conference unless the final declaration is changed to drop all references to Israel and the defamation of religion. In joining Canada and Israel in shunning the meeting, the U.S. noted that the document under negotiation “had gone from bad to worse” and declared that it was “not salvageable.” Other European governments are expected to do the same if the document is not changed.

Western complaints focus on three areas: First is the unrestrained support for the Palestinian cause and the blind criticism of Israel. Attempts to equate Zionism with racism repeat the divisive and corrosive debates of the 1970s. The U.N. is seen as anything but fair in these discussions, and the institution is discredited and marginalized as a result. The second complaint is the call for reparations for slavery.

Many Western governments have acknowledged their role in enslaving and relocating millions of Africans. The demand that they make compensation payments may be cathartic but it is unrealistic. Moreover, it ignores the role of other players, some African and Arab, in the slave trade. The third area of concern is language that calls for restrictions on defamation of religion. Western governments say these provisions undermine freedom of speech. They also note that while the protections are sweeping in their scope, the only religion identified by name is Islam.

It is tempting to blame the Libyan chair for the turn the conference has taken, or the Cuban special rapporteur. Both countries have been at the forefront of the movement to isolate Israel and use the U.N., along with other world bodies, as blunt instruments to cudgel the West and the U.S., in particular. But, sadly, they are not the only countries that desire to single out Israel for international censure.

Reportedly, members of the Muslim world are also using the frictions generated by the war against terrorism to privilege their religion at the conference. The identification of Islamic extremists with terrorism is equated with persecution of that faith in their mind and, therefore, must be prevented at all costs. At the same time, protections for Jews are being blocked. An effort to protect against discrimination and intolerance looks like anything but.

Racism and discrimination are too often evident. Much more must be done to fight these evils and banish them, at least from the realm of government policy. The U.N. should be helping to establish and enforce such norms. But norms such as these are intended to protect minorities, not enshrine the prejudices of the majority. Numbers, like military might, do not make right.

The fate of the Palestinians is a tragedy and Israel has been complicit in that ugly history. But Israel alone is not to blame. The charitable explanation for the mentality behind the Durban meetings is the mistaken belief that the best way to remedy the sufferings of one group is to victimize another. Less charitably, one could argue that Durban is an attempt to punish Israel and the Jews, regardless of what they have done. By either explanation, Durban is flawed and should not proceed.

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