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The controversial UN World Conference against Racism, held from 31 August to 8 September 2001 in Durban, took place in the shadow of the ‘second intifada’ which had begun almost a year earlier following the collapse of the Oslo process.
No one disputes that it provided a platform for anti-Israeli sentiment. Setting aside the assumption that any criticism of Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinians, or discussion of Israel’s many breaches of UN resolutions, is ipso facto antisemitism, the South African conference featured some antisemitic rhetoric, both inside the conference and in the streets around the NGO Forum.
As regards the conference itself:
During preparatory meetings in Geneva, text that linked Zionism to racism was placed in brackets, with the expectation that it would be replaced by text that referred to violations of the rights of Palestinians. In the event, it was removed during the conference. Nonetheless, the United States decided to send a low-level delegation, and after four days of deadlocked negotiations, the United States and Israeli delegations withdrew from the conference. The summit ended in acrimony and accusations of antisemitism.
Criticisms of Durban 1 hinge around three points:
1. That the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDAP) singled out Israel for criticism as a racist state
For: Anne Bayevsky of EYEontheUN Alert-Durban Watch, writing in 2008 in Stay Away from Durban II, compares the treatment of Sudan and Israel and argues that, ‘The European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference cut a deal: Mention of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust could stay in – but with a condemnation of Israeli racism.’
Against: Defenders such as Diana Ralph, a Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) in Canada should end its boycott of Durban II, and Ian Williams, former United Nations correspondent for The Nation, writing in Hatefest consider the DDAP a balanced document and point out that out of 60pages, only the following 250 words refer to Israel and Palestine:
The NGO Forum that took place outside the deliberative structures of the formal decision-making conference also issued a declaration. It was much more strident and Mary Robinson, then UN Commissioner of Human Rights, refused to accept formally.
2. That the NGO Forum declaration was radical and antisemitic in its references to ‘Israel’s brand of apartheid’ and its call for sanctions
For: Congressman and Holocaust survivor,Tom Lantos, who led the US walkout, assigned blame in part to the radicalism of many of the NGOs at the NGO Forum (see The Durban Debacle: An Insider’s View of the UN World Conference Against Racism); while Gerald M.Steinberg, executive director of NGO Monitor, launched a campaign against what he sees as the malign influence of unelected NGOs, and Michael J. Jordan takes the Ford Foundation to task for funding the attendance at the event of ‘anti-Israeli groups’.
Against: Michael Warschawski, co-founder and former director of the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem, in A City Named Durban says that there is no doubt that the first Durban conference was an anti-Israeli platform: but it was not ‘infected by anti-Semitism’. Ramzi Baroud, editor of PalestineChronicle.com, goes further in Politicizing Racism: the event was ‘democracy in its best manifestations, where no country could defy international consensus with the use of a veto power, or could flex its economic muscles to bend the will of the international community.’
3. There is a further accusation that, during the official meeting, the Arab delegates tried to revive United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 (issued 1975, annulled 1991) which stated that “Zionism is a form of racism”
At one point in the parallel series of multiple haggling sessions, a majority of member states were calling for the reinstituting of UN General Assembly Resolution 3379. Since the World Conference on Racism played a major role in the diplomatic isolation of South Africa and the divestment campaign which led to the end of apartheid, friends of Israel are highly sensitive to what they see as an entirely inappropriate comparison. In the event, nothing of this surfaced in the DDAP (see above).
It has become almost impossible to suggest there might be racist elements within Zionism without being labelled antisemitic but Ronnie Kasrils, veteran ANC activist and former South African minister of intelligence, addressing a recent ‘Israeli Apartheid week’ in 2009, has returned to this theme in his Who said nearly 50 years ago that Israel was an apartheid state?.
Nira Yuval Davis pointed out at the time (The binary war, Open Democracy, 25 October 2001) that the event as a whole only seemed to confirm the ‘clash of civilisation’ thesis that developed in the period after 9/ll, which occurred just three days after Durban 1 ended.
All these criticisms were amplified and repeated in the run-up to the Durban Review Conference, intended to monitor implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDAP). It took place in Geneva, April 20-24, 2009. This time, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands joined the US, Israel, Canada and Italy in boycotting the event entirely beforehand, while European foreign ministers battled unsuccessfully to have all reference to the DDAP removed, but successfully to have all references to the Middle East removed from its final declaration (EU heartened by changes to Durban II document). All NGO ‘side events ‘ on Israel and Palestine were also banned in an unsuccessful attempt to change Obama’s mind about US participation. The OSCEs campaign against ‘the new antisemitism’ in Europe was stepped up. The blogosphere was filled with dire warnings from neo-con outriders (e.g. John Bolton), pro-Israeli lobbyists and UN-haters (e.g. Melanie Phillips).
But there were also some new developments at the Durban Review Conference. The closing of the ranks by the international community pleading concerns over ‘anti-Israel and anti-Western bias’ took place against the background of the Gaza conflict and a world economic crisis. A group of Islamic countries under the aegis of the Organisation of Islamic States wanted a call for ‘firm action against negative stereotyping of religions and defamation of religious personalities, holy books, scriptures and symbols’ to be included in the Geneva final document in a direct reprisal for the OSCE’s campaign to extend ‘hate speech’ to include ‘the new anti-semitism’. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was the sole major world leader to accept an invitation to address the forum, and the UK delegation led the walk-out of many remaining member states during his inflammatory speech. There is some controversy about what the President actually said, and how it differs from the advance transcript. But the walkout followed this section of the speech:
The new UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navethenem Pillay (see her The Antiracism Debate in Ha’aretz), clearly thought she had saved the day by excluding all the ‘Palestinian issues’ from both the formal and the NGO process and was ebullient a few days beforehand. She was to be bitterly disappointed: and her reading of Durban II at various stages in its progress remains the most revealing:
17 April 2009. On the preceding Friday when she hoped to have prevented a boycott.
19 April 2009. Shocked by US withdrawal from Durban Review Conference, Pillay urges states to focus on racism not politics.
24 April 2009. Pillay’s remarks at the closing press conference.