THE decision for Australia to boycott the UN Durban Review Conference on racism now under way in Geneva was taken by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in consultation with Kevin Rudd.
It is probably the finest moment in foreign policy for the Rudd Government so far. It represents a template for how Rudd foreign policy should operate and vindicates faith in the soundness and decency of the judgments of Rudd and Smith. It demonstrates a desire to be deeply involved in multilateral processes, but to make an independent decision at the end of those processes.
Why is it so important?
The first conference was held in Durban nearly eight years ago. It degenerated into a vile and hateful anti-Semtitic jamboree. The original idea of the conference was to set down some basic markers against racism that the entire civilised world could endorse, not a bad idea at all. But a number of Arab and African dictatorships, and their non-governmental organisation supporters in the West, hijacked the conference and devoted it to denouncing Israel. No other nation was singled out for criticism.
Israel was demonised not just for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories but uniquely as a racist state. The very idea of Zionism - a Jewish state in the Middle East - was denounced as racist. There were frequent anti-Semitic harangues and much violence, with Jewish speakers prevented from taking the microphone.
The UN set up a follow-up conference this year. There were two threshhold questions for governments on whether to be involved. First, was the draft resolution worth supporting, and second, would the conference degenerate into another anti-Semitic hate fest? Two countries, Israel and Canada, made an in-principle decision months ago that they would not attend under any circumstances. This was a perfectly reasonable judgment and the hate-filled, almost insane, anti-Semitic rant by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the first day of the conference's amply justified this decision.
There was an intense debate within the Obama administration over whether to attend. The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, was generally more sympathetic to attending; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others less so. There was a similar debate in many European nations, as there was in Australia.
Many iterations of the draft text contained offensive statements about Israel. It is worth reflecting for a moment how bizarre this is. A document that is meant to enshrine universal principles against racism, and which singles out no other country, becomes obsessed with the alleged sins of the only democracy in the Middle East. A Russian, Yuri Boychenko, chaired the overall preparatory effort and laboured mightily to clean up the text. He got most offensive things out, except the first paragraph's ringing declaration that DurbanII reaffirmed DurbanI. Thus, although there were no obnoxious references to Israel in the final text, the reaffirmation of DurbanI meant that its positions were re-endorsed. Boychenko could not get this out because the Organisation of the Islamic Conference said it would boycott the conference if it was removed. The failure to mention the reaffirmation of DurbanI in the text of DurbanII has been an important failure of professionalism in much ABC and BBC coverage of this issue.
Meanwhile, the Dutch put in a heroic effort to substitute a shorter, better text that did not contain the reaffirmation.
On March 12, Smith spoke without notes on DurbanII in parliament and said Australia would not be attending unless the text was fundamentally changed and Canberra was convinced the conference would not be misused as an anti-Semitic hate fest in the way the first conference was.
In the following few weeks, the Dutch asked Smith not to make a final decision until their efforts on the text were exhausted. Having an important group of countries, including Australia, still up for grabs, as it were, gave the Dutch extra leverage in their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to fix the DurbanII declaration and make the conference workable.
Smith co-ordinated his actions with the Dutch Foreign Minister, with Clinton, and with a number of his other counterparts. When it was clear the text was irredeemable, a cascade of nations pulled out. First there was Italy, then the US, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Germany and Poland. During Ahmadinejad's bizarre and disturbing rant, most European delegates walked out of the chamber, but the Czechs formally withdrew from the conference altogether. This is very good company for Australia to be keeping, and as an Australian I am proud of our actions.
Probably this episode has cost Australia votes in its effort to be elected to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013. The Government thinks not, because for an Israel-related issue at the UN, it's in a bigger minority than usual.
Nonetheless, Canberra has clearly set itself against the moral intimidation of the dictatorships of the Arab and African worlds. Unfortunately, those dictatorships have a lot of votes at the UN.
But this is why the episode is so very encouraging for those who care about good Australian foreign policy. The Rudd Government made a complete and good faith commitment to the multilateral process. But when that nonetheless produced a thoroughly rotten outcome, it had the guts to make its own decision on the merits of the issue. This is the only way multilateralism can work. This decision goes a long way to establishing that the pursuit of the UN Security Council seat will not come at the expense of our values or good policy more generally.
Two other important reflections. This is not a decision that would come from routine Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advice. DFAT, a bit like the British Foreign Office, has a natural Arabist bias among its Middle East professionals. Diplomats tend to take on something of the views and prejudices of the countries to which they are posted, and there are a lot of Arab postings and only one Israel. Moreover, diplomats have a tendency to want to minimise friction and any opposition to Australia inside the UN system. Quite rightly, Rudd and Smith made the decision on the question of values and policy for Australia.
Second, while no one is more strongly in favour of close political relations with Asian nations than I am, it is disturbing that of all the other nations that took the action we did, the only one from our region was New Zealand. (The new Government in Wellington deserves special congratulations for taking the action it did, because it was opposed domestically by Labour and the Greens.) We need to talk more to our Asian friends about these issues. But certainly we did the right thing.