President-elect Obama will face an interesting predicament in April 2009 when the United Nations Durban II conference on combating racism will be held. Durban I, the World Conference Against Racism, was held in South Africa in 2001, a week before September 11. While the vast majority of world leaders attended the week-long conference, the Bush administration withdrew after four days of discussion.

The goal of the conference was to “identify concrete measures and initiatives for combating and eliminating all manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” according to the Web site of the United Nations. Durban II’s goal is to ensure the efficacy of the Durban I and create new measures, if necessary, for the elimination of racism throughout the world.

The problem with attending the conference for President-elect Obama is ostensibly a potentially awkward conflict of interest between human rights groups and Jewish constituencies in America.

The Congressional Black Caucus and human rights organizations in the United States are urging Obama to attend because it will help to increase awareness and find concrete ways to combat racism throughout the world.

On the other hand, leaders within the Jewish community are calling for a boycott of Durban II because of its focus on human rights violations by Israel. They also fear the conference will equate Zionism to racism. Elie Wiesel, Martin Peretz, Bernard Lewis and others have been trying to convince President-elect Obama and Hillary Clinton, his nominee for secretary of state, not to attend. They have written numerous Op-Ed pieces on the “pointlessness” of the conference and have even taken out a one-page ad in The Washington Times and The New York Sun urging Obama and Clinton to boycott Durban II.

This puts President Obama in a very difficult position: alienate the U.S. Jewish community or ignore the interests of numerous human rights groups and minority populations in the United States?

I strongly urge Obama to attend the Durban II conference because it will show the world that the United States is committed to human rights. In the past, we have failed to ratify or sign several international treaties to ensure the betterment of the environment and humankind, from the Kyoto Protocol (climate change) to the Ottawa Treaty (banning landmines). If Obama attends, it will buck the American “tradition” of boycotting and marginalizing international forums and treaties.

By attending this conference, Obama will acknowledge that racism is still an important issue in America and around the world. This conference is needed to fight the continuing effects of racism. Let us not forget the human indignity of apartheid in South Africa just little more than a decade ago or the mistreatment of the indigenous peoples in Bolivia and throughout Latin America.

In addition, racism within our own nation is apparent when one looks at statistics on poverty and incarceration. This is an issue that affects a great number of Americans directly and indirectly. This conference has very little to do with Israel and Zionism. These side issues are not reasons enough for us not to attend such an important international conference.

When President Bush withdrew from Durban I, it highlighted a hypocrisy in American foreign policy: We only stand up for human rights when it is in our best interest. By not attending, Bush implied that he was not devoted to the American ideals of equality, liberty and justice for all people regardless of race, color, creed, gender, sexuality and so on. Durban II is a golden opportunity for President-elect Obama to differentiate himself from President Bush by showing the world that America does stand up for its own ideals, both in word and in action.

Obama spent a great deal of time discussing race and tracing his identity in his memoir “Dreams from My Father.” This is an issue that is dear to him. If he chooses not to attend, I think it will cast doubt upon the sincerity of his convictions. If President-elect Obama stands for what he truly believes in, he must attend Durban II in Geneva, Switzerland come April 20.

Joanne Rodrigues is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.

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