The world’s struggle against racism is heading for the same severe setback it suffered eight years ago. The damage is being inflicted as the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva prepares draft resolutions for the Durban Review Conference due there from April 20 to 25. Islamic countries are insisting on wording that will assail Israel and which will equate criticism of a religious faith with violation of human rights.
This week, on Thursday, Italy’s foreign minister Franco Frattini was reported to have announced that his country is pulling out because of the “aggressive and antisemitic statements” in the text. Canada and Israel have already said they will not take part. The United States has withdrawn, saying the draft text is “not salvageable”. The Netherlands, France, Denmark, Germany and Belgium are expressing their worries.
The Dutch foreign affairs minister, Maxime Verhagen, told the council this week: “I am deeply disturbed by the turn this event is taking. The thematic world conference is used by some to try to force their concept of defamation of religions and their focus on one regional conflict on all of us.”
The references to Israel and the protection of religion in draft texts were unacceptable, he said. “We cannot accept any text which would put religion above individuals, not condemn discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, condone antisemitism or single out Israel.”
It all has a horribly familiar ring, except that this time EU nations are lodging their objections in advance. The first World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, was intended as a high point in the battle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. It was an especially proud event for the South African host in celebrating the end of apartheid seven years earlier.
However, problems began in the initial conference of NGOs attended by 4,000 people from many parts of the world. Israel was singled out as the target. It was condemned in resolutions as “the new apartheid”, and accused of racism, genocide and much else. A raft of resolutions urged boycotts and its exclusion from the world.
The west, and especially the United States, also came under fierce attack with reparations demanded for the slave trade. Washington’s (black) secretary of state, Colin Powell, who was not present, gave some perspective to this by publicly asking whether he would have to pay or be paid.
The NGO resolutions were carried into the succeeding conference of governments (I was a member of the Israeli delegation, invited to join because of my knowledge of apartheid). The extreme wording and the vicious tone at the NGO conference, inside the hall and in the marching and chanting crowds in the streets, proved too much: four days into the eight-day conference, the United States delegation walked out, followed by the Israelis.
The EU also threatened to quit. As the conference became strangled by controversy and was in danger of collapse, the resolutions were rapidly redrafted to excise the ugly references to Israel, leaving only a declaration supporting Palestinians and Israel’s existence. The slavery issue disappeared.
In a review last year, the Netherlands-based ICARE (Internet Centre Anti-Racism Europe) noted that both the NGO and government conference “suffered from hate-mongering and extreme politicisation”. It said the discrimination against Dalits in India and Roma in Europe had not even featured in the final governmental declaration.
Less than a week after Durban, 9/11 captured the headlines. Anti-racism went onto the backburner. But anger and disappointment about Durban’s wild excesses went on simmering and, seven months later, South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, spoke bluntly at the annual conference of the country’s Zionist Federation. He referred to the “disgraceful events” surrounding the NGO conference and said: “I wish to make it unequivocally clear that the South African government recognises that part of that component was hijacked and used by some with an anti-Israeli agenda to turn it into an antisemitic event.” That was precisely why, he added, that the world’s governments had refused to accept the NGO resolutions.
When the UN decided to organise a follow-up conference to check the extent of progress against racism, Durban was the elephant in the room. As preparatory meetings got underway last year, it was clear that there was a universal desire to ensure there would not be any repetition of 2001. It was to be called the Durban Review Conference. It was definitely not to be referred to as Durban 2. Initial thoughts of meeting again in South Africa were put aside. The role of NGOs was played down; no money could be found for a separate conference for them.
But the anti-Israel forces began to assert themselves. The attacks increased: Canada saw what was building up and was the first to walk out, nearly a year ago. The “Zionism is racism” claim, long discredited at the UN, was heard again.
The draft resolutions now say that Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories constitutes a “violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid”. Also, Israel poses “a serious threat to international peace and security and violates the basic principles of international human rights law”.
In other words, the draft sets out to equate Israel with apartheid South Africa so that it can be declared a pariah state and be made subject to international sanctions.
Together with this, Muslim countries have been pushing for wording to protect Islam from criticism. Angry about Danish newspaper cartoons and films, they want to oulaw any criticism of religion as a violation of human rights. Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said this week that the conference should deal with contemporary forms of racism such as religious profiling and Islamophobia.
The new Obama administration sent two senior officials to attend the meetings preparing for the conference. But a week ago, the State Department announced that the “document being negotiated has gone from bad to worse, and the current text of the draft outcome document is not salvageable. A conference based on this text would be a missed opportunity to speak clearly about the persistent problem of racism.” It said the US will not take part unless resolutions do not criticise any one country or conflict.
The 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference, aided and abetted by members of the Human Rights Council such as Libya, Iran and Cuba, is pressing ahead.
The UN’s chief human rights official, Navi Pillay, is understandably urging all states to attend next month. She warns that the failure of Durban 2 could damage human rights work for years to come. But the omens are not good.
This piece, by Benjamin Pogrund, is on Comment is free.