Hijacking of conference on racism must be avoided


OPINION:States have withdrawn from a UN conference due to an alleged anti-Israel agenda, writes EDWIN BENNATAN

IN GENEVA, you almost expect to hear a public announcement: “Stay in your seats. We have taken control of this conference. If you do as you are told no one will be harmed, except Israel.”

It’s the second anti-racism conference, dubbed Durban II, scheduled next month in Geneva, and apparently Canada is not staying in its seat and neither is Israel. Both countries have withdrawn from the conference, and now the United States and Italy have announced that they will likely do the same. Other countries, including the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium, as well as the Czech Republic, which currently holds the European Union presidency, have warned that they are considering similar action.

Known formally as the Durban Review Conference and held under the auspices of the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights, it is supposed to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Durban, which turned into an anti-Israel hate fest, and from which the United States and Israel withdrew, was chaired by former Irish president Mary Robinson, who, at a gala dinner, waved in disgust the book of anti-Semitic cartoons that was being distributed there and declared: “I am a Jew.”

And now the stage is set for a repeat performance. The Durban II preparation committee, which includes such dubious beacons of civil liberty as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran, has produced an outrageous draft “outcome” document, which the US delegation has described as having “gone from bad to worse” and as being “unsalvageable”. The document equates criticism of religion with the violation of human rights (any religion, but Islam figures prominently in the text), and singles out just one country among all nations of the world for condemnation.

Is it Sudan, for having massacred more than 300,000 members of ethnic tribes and for having displaced millions in Darfur? Or is it the brutal regime of North Korea, or possibly Saudi Arabia or Iran, which are monolithically Muslim, and which have some of the worst human rights records in the world? Or perhaps China, for the ethnic devastation of Tibet, or Russia, for the persecution of the Chechens?

Europe doesn’t have a clean slate either, and even in Ireland, which is near-monolithically Christian, and which is certainly nowhere near the top of the offenders’ list, a recent damning 120-page report from the Irish Centre for Human Rights on institutionalised racism in Ireland found “clear examples of blatantly discriminatory laws and policies” against minorities.

None of these countries is mentioned by the Durban II preparation committee. But Israel is.

Israel, where more than 20 per cent of the population is Arab, and where Arabs are elected to the Israeli parliament, serve in government, in the diplomatic corps, as officers in the Israeli army and police force, as students, professors, and researchers, as doctors and lawyers, and in the judiciary and on the Israel supreme court.

Is there discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel? Yes, there is. And though the US state department, in its annual review of international human rights, reports that the Israeli government generally respects the human rights of its citizens, it also states that there were “problems in some areas”.

So where is Israel in the list of offenders? According to the highly respected Freedom House evaluation of countries of the world, Israel ranked in the highest (most free) quadrant with high grades for both civil liberties and political rights.

The Palestinian territories, of course, are a different story. There is still no peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and hostilities periodically erupt and subside. Israel blames the Palestinians for repeatedly rejecting peace proposals (that include the removal of Jewish settlers) and the Palestinians blame Israel for not offering enough. But is an anti-racism conference the appropriate forum to address the Israel-Palestinian conflict (or any other binational conflict, for that matter)?

The words of the Canadian delegate echo the feelings of many countries, and are as true today as they were at Durban in 2001: “We are not satisfied with this conference. Not enough time has been dedicated to advancing its objectives, that is, developing forward-looking, action-oriented strategies to eradicate the many forms of discrimination that exist today. Instead, too much time has been spent on an issue that does not belong here.

“Canada is still here today only because we wanted to have our voice decry the attempts at this conference to de-legitimise the State of Israel and to dishonour the history and suffering of the Jewish people. We believe, and we have said in the clearest possible terms, that it was inappropriate – wrong – to address the Palestinian-Israel conflict in this forum.”

Hopefully, it is not too late to prevent next month’s Durban II conference from deteriorating into the fiasco that was Durban I. The battle against racism is a worthy endeavour, and it will be most unfortunate if the opportunity to make some real progress on this front is missed once again.

The countries that have announced their intention to withdraw, and especially the United States, need to launch a final effort to liberate the conference from the group that has hijacked its agenda, so that it can be brought back on track to focus on anti-racism as was originally intended.

The United States has listed four changes in the conference outcome document that would enable it to reconsider its position: no unequivocal reaffirmation of the Durban I declaration and plan; no reference to any single country or conflict; the removal of all references to the defamation of religion; and the deletion of all references to repatriations for slavery.

Though the conference preparation committee has indicated its willingness to change at least some parts of the document, many delegations and observers still seem to believe that Durban II is unsalvageable because of the underlying hostile tone set by the committee. If that indeed turns out to be the case, then at least its goal must be salvaged and an alternative conference organised as soon as possible to pick up the torch that the Durban II preparation committee has dropped. It would be better than a repeat of the Durban I fiasco.