Paramus resident Felice Gaer – tapped by the Obama administration to attend last week’s preparatory meeting for the United Nations Conference Against Racism, dubbed Durban II – is no stranger to controversy.
Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights since 1993, and now serving a third term on the United Nations Committee Against Torture, Gaer has worked on issues ranging from rape in Bosnia to the slaughter in Darfur.
Last week’s meeting, though less dramatic, is nevertheless a source of controversy, with some Jewish groups, who contend that by not boycotting the talks, President Obama is sending the wrong message. The United States walked out of the first Durban conference in 2001 because of what then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called “hateful language” about Israel.
Calling last week’s trip a “fact-finding mission” to evaluate efforts to shape the draft document that will set the tone for Durban II – and to determine the feasibility of participation in the main event – Gaer said the U.S. delegation delivered its message to more than 30 delegations, “meeting them face to face and eye to eye.”
“It was quite extraordinary to have the opportunity to participate on behalf of the U.S. government to chip away at the myths” underlying the conference platform, said Gaer.
Citing new instances of “hateful language” in the proposed platform, she said the Obama administration wants to see for itself “if there is a possibility of changing direction. We went to try to do this,” she said. “We told them the language had to go.”
Whether the United States will participate in the conference itself is still open, and the administration has stressed that participation in the planning meeting doesn’t mean the U.S. will take part in future sessions or in the conference itself.
“We’re trying to assess the result of the consultations, if our message got through,” said Gaer, noting that “the top issue of concern was the unacceptable language on the Middle East.” But, she said, there was also an “unacceptable use of the platform for anti-Semitism,” with efforts to “trivialize” the Holocaust. Iran has been particularly active in this regard, she said. Ironically, Durban II will take place from April 20 to 24, overlapping Israel’s observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, on April 21.
Some of the delegations she spoke to “didn’t understand why we were saying [these things],” said Gaer. “They thought it was just because we were an ally of Israel. We explained that the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is not about racism. It’s political. It doesn’t belong here at a conference about racism. It implies that Zionism is racism.”
“We made it crystal clear that this kind of ugly myth doesn’t belong in this exercise,” she said. “The question is, is there a political will to reverse the course?”
Gaer said that when delegates told her that “it’s always been done this way,” she explained that “the election in our country was about change, and change must happen here, too.”
“A lot of countries are unhappy with the process and how the more aggressive countries are using” the platform, she said, and Jewish groups in particular are worried that the gathering will be a repeat of the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish free-for-all that was the first conference in South Africa in 2001.
Britain, Italy, France, and Denmark have indicated that they are prepared to leave the conference if there is no change in the platform, said Gaer. Canada and Israel have already announced that they will not participate.
According to Gaer, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights – which conducts research and advocacy to strengthen international human rights protections and institutions – is “the only international human rights institution in any Jewish organization.” Among other issues, she said, it is “trying to get the U.N. to function more effectively to protect religious freedom” around the world.
A frequent lecturer and the author of more than 25 articles on human rights, Gaer said one of her proudest achievements was “getting the U.N. to address anti-Semitism as a human rights issue,” an initiative, she said, that “is making some progress.”