Geneva, Switzerland – The absence of President Barack Obama from the United Nations’ Durban Review Conference is not appreciated by the UN hierarchy and was noted at the outset of the meeting this morning. While a handful of nations are boycotting the conference because of it’s bias toward Israel, it is the U.S. President who UN officials had most hoped to see here. The presence of America’s first black President would lend some desperately needed credibility to the summit, they believe. 

In his opening statement this morning, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed that “some nations, who by rights should be helping to forge a path to a better future, are not here.” He said he “deeply regrets” that the U.S. and others – to include Canada, Italy, Israel, Australia and others – “have chosen to stand aside.”

To emphasize the U.S. absence, Ban invoked the words of a former U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt. “My allegiance and sympathies,” Ban noted, “have always been with the men and women in the arena, struggling with courage and determination to win the day.” He added that “it may be easier to criticize those efforts from afar, but it does not advance the universal cause.”

For his part, Mr. Obama said that he “would love to be involved in a useful conference,” but U.S. participation “would have involved putting our imprimatur on something we just didn’t believe in.”

Is it possible the President realizes the United Nations isn’t the serving of peaches and cream that he thought it to be? During his campaign for the White House, then Senator Obama habitually criticized the Bush administration for ignoring the United Nations. But when faced with the text agreed to by Durban II delegates, Obama said it “raised a whole set of objectionable provisions,” and was “not something we can sign up for.”

Navi Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights was harsh in her criticism of Obama’s absence, saying the U.S. has “permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue.” Pillay said she was “shocked and deeply disappointed by the United States decision not to attend a conference that aims to combat racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance worldwide.”

The Commissioner suggested that the U.S. should have attended the conference and expressed any objections “in a footnote.” Had the U.S. chosen that route, she explained, “we could have all moved on together, and put the problems of 2001 behind us.”

In the world of the United Nations, resolving deeply held religious and political convictions is as simple as that.

In the case of Durban II, the President calculated his involvement with the United Nations would do him more harm than good. Nonetheless, he held out hope for the global institution. “I believe,” he said, “in the possibility of the United Nations serving as an effective forum to deal with a whole host of transnational conflicts.”

The UN is not the “effective forum” of your aspirations, Mr. President, and it will likely never be. You can hope, but the United Nations is not going to change.

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