By Miriam Bell
Eight years ago, my mother attended the first United Nations World Conference on Racism in Durban  as part of the New Zealand delegation. At the time she was a senior legal adviser to then Race Relations Conciliator Gregory Fortuin. Prepared as she was for differing opinions, including ones she did not agree with, she was shocked by what took place at the conference.
The level of abuse and the nature of the insults directed at Israel stunned her. She could not believe that attendees at a conference, which was supposedly devoted to combating racism and related problems, could be so virulently antisemitic. On her return, she said she would do her best to avoid ever attending such a conference again.
As a result of this, ever since I heard that a “Durban II” conference on racism was going to be held, I’ve watched with interest to see whether New Zealand would be involved and what sort of public dialogue might occur about our stance. Perhaps predictably (Kiwis do not tend to be particularly interested in the activities of the United Nations), there was virtually no national dialogue at all on the subject until the week of the conference.
I watched as Israel and Canada said they would not be attending, and then as the US, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia announced they would also boycott.
The weekend before the conference began, rumours started to circulate that New Zealand might pull out of the event too. In response, Green Party foreign affairs spokesperson Keith Locke released a statement urging the government to attend and strongly opposing a boycott.
According to Locke, there was a large degree of consensus around the review text of the draft declaration and “New Zealand should not shy away just because the USA considers the amended document to be still too biased against Israel.”
However, the day before the conference, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully announced New Zealand would not take part. He said the original Durban conference gave rise to expressions of anti-Israeli views which undermined its focus on genuine anti-racism initiatives, and that he was determined that any New Zealand participation would be on the basis of a draft outcome document that did not endorse the 2001 declaration.
“I am not satisfied the wording emerging from preparatory discussions will prevent the review conference from descending into the same kind of rancorous and unproductive debate that took place in 2001,” he said. “The review conference is not likely to advance the cause of race relations at the international level, and so New Zealand will not be represented at it.”
McCully’s announcement was welcomed by the New Zealand Jewish Council, but drew immediate criticism from both the Labour Party and the Green Party.
Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson said the government’s decision meant New Zealand would be missing out on a key opportunity to fight racism. “It is a shame that the rhetoric around Israel has overridden the important issues about racism. In multilateral discussions there will be things said that we find unpalatable, but it is vital we are at the table to ensure our opposition to racism in any form is expressed at the highest levels.”
Meanwhile, Keith Locke denounced the decision as “cowardly”, adding “There may be some criticism of Israel at the meeting, but surely that is par for the course at UN meetings, and has some validity given the way a number of Israeli administrations have treated Palestinians, particularly those residing in the Gaza [strip]… It is not a good look for us to be seen once more as a pawn of the bigger Western nations trying to enforce their will on a world body, to stop any criticism of Israel.”
Although the opposition from Labour and the Greens was, perhaps, not surprising, the response of New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner (formerly conciliator) Joris de Bres was. He elected to attend the Geneva conference independently, and said he was extremely disappointed New Zealand had pulled out because it made it difficult to have the important dialogue that needed to take place.
De Bres also told Radio New Zealand that the draft text had no hint of antisemitism in it. “I can’t for the life of me see why it wouldn’t form a good basis for determining an outcome during this week. There will be different views raised during the conference, but efforts will be made to prevent it being used as a platform for hate speech.”
Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan supported De Bres’s stance. She told Radio New Zealand she was concerned about the misinformation surrounding the conference, and said there was nothing in the program of action that any New Zealander would disagree with. “I cannot find any evidence of what some people claim is contained in the document. I can’t find anything, for example, that smacks of antisemitism.”
Following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antisemitic conference address, Prime Minister John Key said McCully’s decision had been vindicated. McCully, who also criticised De Bres’ attendance at, and comments about, the conference, said: “I would have thought that if any New Zealander wanted an illustration of what the government feared would occur then they have just received it.”
At the time of writing, neither the Race Relations Commissioner nor the Chief Human Rights Commissioner have made any further comments about the conference.