Last month, delegations from the U.S. and Israel made waves in the world of international diplomacy when they walked out of the United Nations’ World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa. The reason: language in the program equating Zionism with racism and, to a lesser extent, an international call for reparations for U.S. slavery.
These are explanation enough, but there were any number of reasons for the U.S. to hold its nose at Durban. At that conference, a host of American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) pushed a utopian, ideological agenda that was not only intent on income redistribution, but actually constituted a root-and-branch attack upon both the theory and the practice of American constitutional democracy.
Groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, the International Human Rights Law Group, the NAACP, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund—backed by some of the most prominent foundations in the country—were determined to use Durban as a platform from which to launch attacks on the American system of equality before the law.
Consider the evidence: The NGO agenda was outlined before the conference in a series of reports, two of them funded by the Ford Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, that endorsed a number of dubious propositions. These included support for the “inclusion of compensatory measures” (read: reparations for slavery) as a sub-theme on the agenda of the World Conference; a demand that the U.S. “publicly acknowledge the breadth and pervasiveness of institutional racism,” which “permeates every institution at every level”; a declaration that “racial bias corrupts every stage of the criminal justice process, from suspicion to investigation, arrest, prosecution, trial, and sentencing”; and an insistence that “rhetoric emphasizing the ‘progress’ we have made in overcoming this country’s racial problems actually ignores how deeply imbedded racismÉ is.”
These reports also urged that hate crimes legislation be supported and expanded at the federal and state levels; condemned opposition to affirmative action and “urged the U.S. government and state authorities to reaffirm and vigorously defend affirmative action measures”; excoriated the “persistent failure of the U.S. government to recognize that an adequate standard of living is a right, not a privilege”; denounced the “denial of economic rights in this country”; and characterized policies that emphasize English language acquisition for non-English speakers as “discriminatory,” insisting that “multi-lingualism should be encouraged and promoted, not impeded.”
Finally, in the most blatant attack on the American system, the reports denounced free market capitalism as “a fundamentally flawed system” and “expressed the conviction that it is possible to organize a more just, equitable, and socially responsible system.”
One example of the underlying process of these groups is particularly revealing of their aims. On October 24, 2000, 50 prominent activists from more than 180 NGOs, including the NAACP, the ACLU, and MALDEF, called upon the United Nations “to hold the United States accountable for the intractable and persistent problem of discrimination” that “men and women of color face at the hands of the U.S. criminal justice system.” The spokesman for the group, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, stated that its demands “had been repeatedly raised with federal and state officials but to little effect.”
“In frustration,” he concluded, “we now turn to the United Nations.” In other words, the NGOs could not enact the policies that they favored through normal democratic means—state governments, state courts, the Congress, the Executive Branch, or even the federal courts. Therefore, they found themselves compelled to appeal to authorities outside of American democracy and beyond its Constitution. This is not simply traditional support for “liberal” projects, but rather behavior that explicitly denies the very legitimacy of our constitutional order. This behavior should be unhesitatingly characterized as post-constitutional.
The controversies over Durban, however, are but a microcosm of a much larger problem. A disturbing trend has emerged in the behavior of these NGOs, the same sequence of events repeating itself in one UN conference after another and in international treaty after treaty. The pattern goes like this: American NGOs actively urge international bodies to endorse proposals that no American government, federal or state, would ever adopt. Once that is accomplished, these groups demand that the U.S. adhere to “world opinion,” complaining bitterly that we are “out of step” with “international human rights norms.”
Here is one example: In 1994, the United States ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination but attached reservations declaring that the U.S. did not accept treaty requirements that are “incompatible with the Constitution”—specifically, provisions that outlaw certain forms of speech that are protected by the First Amendment. Yet leading NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, and the International Human Rights Group, demand that the U.S. drop “all reservations” to the CERD treaty.
On August 6, 2001, Reuters reported that the United States presented its first report to a UN committee on implementing CERD. An American delegation “reiterated the U.S. policy of condemning unequal treatment of racial and ethnic minorities.” However, neither the UN Committee nor the NGOs were interested in equal treatment; instead, they insisted on equal results. An NGO representative from the Center for Constitutional Rights admitted as much when she complained, “Almost every member of the [UN] committee raised the question of why there are vast [racial] disparities in every aspect of American life—education, housing, health, welfare, criminal justice.” A representative from Human Rights Watch declared that the U.S. offered “no remedies,” but “simply restated a position which already doesn’t comply with CERD and which indicates no willingness to comply.”
Indeed, to comply with the NGO interpretation of the CERD treaty, the U.S. would have to to remake its political and economic systems, as well as abandon its underlying principles. Since practically nothing in the NGO agenda is supported by the American people, the free speech guarantees of the Constitution, federalism, and the very concept of majority rule would have to be tossed out the window.
To that end, in 1998, the Ford Foundation awarded a $300,000 grant to the International Human Rights Law Group specifically “to encourage U.S. compliance with CERD.” That’s not the only area of foundation support for these activities (see chart). Significantly, some of the largest foundations in American philanthropy are pouring money into NGOs that, in Richard John Neuhaus’s words, are attempting an “end run around democracy.”
Some of this funding is specifically targeted at alleged U.S. human rights “abuses” and “violations.” For example, in 1998, Amnesty International USA received a MacArthur Foundation grant to study “human rights abuses in the United States.” Likewise, in 1999, Human Rights Watch received $300,000 from the Ford Foundation for an 18-month project designed to “investigate, publicize, and propose public policy responses to potential violations of U.S. workers’ rights.”
At the end of the day, supporters of our constitutional regime must not ignore the larger principles at stake when powerful foundations and NGOs attempt to bypass the rules and norms of American democracy. In the coming years, American constitutional democracy will be called upon repeatedly to withstand challenges from these sources. If we don’t resist, our basic principles will be undermined and degraded—or even slowly abandoned—in the name of making the nation more “fair” or “equitable.” The dangers are serious and real. Our response must be the same.
John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Center for American Common Culture.