Australia/Israel Review

Durban Renewal

Nov 24, 2008 | Allon Lee

The return of the UN’s Orwellian “anti-racism” conference


By Allon Lee

The United Nations’ Review Conference for the 2001 “World Conference Against Racism” is shaping up to be as unworthy of its name as was its predecessor.

The 2001 conference (Durban I) was hosted by South Africa in Durban and its legacy as a hate fest of antisemitism and anti-Israel thuggery has blighted the city’s reputation.

The fact that the 2009 conference – to be held between April 20-24 in Geneva, Switzerland – is being organised by a committee that is chaired by Libya, with Pakistan, Iran and Cuba as vice chairs, does not bode well for a successful conference or the advance of human rights.

Opinion is divided on whether countries should attend the 2009 conference. To date, Canada and Israel are the only countries to withdraw completely in protest, while the United States is not involved in the process but observing at preparatory meetings.

AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones, who attended the Durban I conference in the Australian Government delegation, said the experience set back the cause of anti-racism activism.

“In Durban, what was made clear was that there was no cost for being an antisemite and there was a potential cost if you stood up to racist bullying,” Jones said.

“To be at a UN-auspiced conference and when someone stands up to ask the neutral question, ‘will there be questions after the speakers’, and people start heckling ‘Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew’ with the chair laughing, you know you are in a disgusting environment,” he said.

There were four conferences in Durban – one for government human rights bodies, one for youth, the official governmental conference and a meeting of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) preceding it. Jones attended both the NGO and government conferences.

“The experiences of governments were as if we had been mugged and had $100 stolen. By the end of the conference we negotiated $90 back and the criminals acted as if they were robbed. That’s what it felt like,” Jones explained.

Jones said the NGO conference was a “happy hunting ground for thugs.”

“There are countries where the concept of civil society was anathema and these [states] had huge NGO and media delegations,” Jones said.

A child of the post-Cold War era, Durban I was intended as a “chance to build a better world,” Jones explained.

“It was quite idealistic in its conception. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, with freedom reigning everywhere, you had to deal with people abusing that freedom to spread racism. That was the intellectual origins of it.

“Going into Durban from the perspective of the Europeans and the Americas, you would have gone in saying this is a genuine anti-racism conference,” he said.

Many delegates were blindsided at Durban I by the absence of documents outlining what the resolutions up for discussion would be prior to the start of the conference.

The hijacking of the conference was achieved by a bloc of Arab and African countries using their majority vote to ram through resolutions that singled out and demonised Israel as an apartheid state and perpetrator of genocide against Palestinians.

The worst excesses in the final resolution from Durban I were removed after the US and Israel walked out of the conference and Europe threatened to follow suit.

“The defining point of Durban was the final documents – which were disgusting. And that is the starting point of this [Durban II] conference,” Jones said.


Durban II – More of the same

Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch in Geneva, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the United Nations and its systemic anti-Israel rhetoric and activities.

He has been monitoring and warning of the dangers of Durban II which is overseen by the UN Human Rights Council, a body that has relentlessly focused on Israel to the exclusion of most other countries with far worse human rights records.

“I am not sure politicians understand that this is fundamentally a malicious exercise,” Neuer said.

“While here and there it may include some worthwhile statements, and while there are some legitimate activists who will be attending the proceedings with legitimate hopes, at its core it is an exercise where the world’s worse human rights abusers are seeking to indict the world’s most tolerant democracies,” he said.

An 88-page Durban II draft declaration released in October accuses the US, Western Europe, Israel and other liberal democracies of being racist and discriminatory against Islam, Neuer explained.

Free speech, wealth, globalisation, and security measures to combat anti-Western terrorism are considered manifestations of Western racism, Neuer said.

“When Africa addresses issues of discrimination, you don’t hear a word about hundreds of thousands murdered in Sudan because of their race. You won’t hear a word about thousands killed because they are in the wrong tribe in Kenya. Or in the Congo. And the list goes on and on.

“All you will hear are various code words for a phenomena in the West which we are led to believe is fundamentally racist against not only Africans but Muslims and seeking to defame Islam,” Neuer said.

One of the notable themes of the draft resolution is the singling out of Israel, which is portrayed as the enemy of humanity, Neuer said.

The other is the push by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to list defamation of religion as a crime.

Through a Libyan front organisation called North-South 21, which according to Neuer is “the Muammar Gaddhafi human rights prize organisation”, Libya is pushing for a repeat parallel NGO conference to run concurrently with the main conference.

“It is an antisemitic group that has given awards to a convicted Holocaust denier. So an antisemitic Libyan front organisation is leading the NGO campaign for an NGO forum,” he said.

Anne Bayefsky, a law professor, human rights scholar and editor of the “Eye on the UN” wesbite, attended Durban I as a representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and is vociferous in her opposition to democracies attending Durban II.

“[By participating] we lend legitimacy to this assault on human rights. Fully free democracies are not in the majority at the UN and will not prevail,” she warned.

“It is irretrievable. Do the math. How is it democratic states can do the math in national elections, and don’t get it when it comes to the UN?” she asked.

US and Israel

Neuer said that “the Americans and the Israelis [had] a note taker sitting at the back of the room” in the preparatory meetings but [have been] effectively not participating.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Nov. 12 that Israel will boycott the conference if it provides a platform for antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. She called on him to “release a clear, moral statement on this issue as soon as possible.” Israel announced on Nov. 19 that it will not attend.

While the Bush Administration is not participating but hasn’t withdrawn completely, the great unknown is what an Obama Administration’s position will be.

Neuer said that Obama’s left-wing constituency will call for him to participate at Durban, but now that Israel has pulled out, the pro-Israel constituency will likely urge Obama not to legitimise the process.

“I think that it is a bit naïve to think that the Islamic bloc, which has its agenda, will suddenly abandon it to bring Obama to the conference. Or that Iran and Syria and Egypt, that have been promoting the anti-Israel agenda, will surrender either. So even if they are willing to shave off 50, 60, or 80 percent of the language in that scenario, that’s not something an American president can agree with on any level,” he said.

Bayefsky said: “Yes, it is possible America will participate. [Obama’s] closest associates believe those who hate America will be won over if Gulliver lies down and lets himself be tied up by the Lilliputians at the UN. Obama sold Americans on his ability to win friends, an ability – he will soon discover – dependent on his unwillingness to use power, period, even as a vehicle for good.”  

European concerns

While France, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark have condemned anti-Israel statements included in the draft resolution, Neuer said European countries “can live with quite a bit of anti-Israel language”, and “will not fall on their sword for Israel.”

“The EU’s issue is the colonial issue. They don’t want to be indicted for crimes of colonialism, and they certainly don’t want to pay reparations, which is a big issue for them,” Neuer said.

But the foremost concern for Europe is the push to proscribe defamation of religion, Neuer said.


Defamation of religion

As a frequent participant in interfaith meetings, Jeremy Jones agrees with European concerns that defaming religion must not be criminalised.

“Now there is a huge difference between [prohibiting speech about religions] and saying that ‘I am not going to give service to someone because they are a Muslim’,” Jones explained.

“Of course you should oppose discrimination against people on the basis of their religion. But to say you can’t challenge the tenets of a religion or express opinion on them is something that once upon a time was the rule in Western Christian societies because of blasphemy laws. It stopped free enquiry into all sorts of things,” he said.


What should Australia do?

According to Neuer, Australia has an important role to play in rectifying the Durban II conference.

“I think Australia has a voice of moral legitimacy and the world pays note to what Australia does. The world may not pay note to other countries of similar population, but Australia is a very important country in Asia,” he stressed.

Neuer said he is puzzled by Australia’s silence in the preparatory meetings for Durban II.

“I haven’t heard Australia’s voice, and if they do decide to stay in they need to justify the decision and be vigorous in objecting to all the unacceptable language,” Neuer said.

Jones believes the onus should be on the organisers of the UN preparatory committee to demonstrate to countries like Australia that “we are not about repeating the worst of the last conference.”

“Australia should be working with other like-minded governments and say that they will not be part of the conference if it does not hold out prospects of a result that will advance the cause of anti-racism and civilised discourse and tolerance,” Jones explained.

He also suggested that Australia should try to use its influence with Southeast Asian countries to warn of the dangers of Durban II.

“There are areas where diplomats can say ‘it is worth you being on the side of angels in this.’ But the problem is that nobody is putting it to them in those terms at the moment,” Jones said.

Bayefsky criticised Australia for its “fence-sitting; a serious failure of leadership; a pretence that if they hide in the weeds no one will notice that they are still there.”

In her opinion there is nothing Australia can do to salvage the conference.

“Its voice at Durban II is literally meaningless – because democratic countries are being used to legitimise antisemitism and the assault on freedoms essential to the free world.

“They do not have the numbers to prevail, will be driven to join consensus on an end product that is worse for human rights protection and not better. Speechifying in the midst of such an assault is not meaningful. By contrast, refusing to give human rights abusers a credible global platform for spewing hate is meaningful,” she said.

Distinguishing antisemitism from anti-Zionism

Jones cautioned against falling into the trap of mistaking legitimate concerns about Durban II as an attempt to silence criticism of Israel.

“There’s no concept of criticism of nationalism in the draft resolution, but just Zionism. There’s no criticism of ‘occupation’ as a concept, only of Israel’s ‘occupation’. There’s no criticism of defending yourself under attack – only when it is by Israel.

“It’s not about Israel having good or bad policies or that Israel should be more open in its dialogue or relationships or even what the borders should be. You would have to school yourself in Soviet doubletalk in an immense degree to rationalise this as being about policies of Israel,” he said.

Bayefsky echoed Jones’ explanation: “In particular because [the draft resolution] is grossly discriminatory. So-called rules applied to Israel applied to no one else. Israel is the only country on earth practising racism – the only country named. Discrimination against individual Jews is antisemitism; discrimination against the Jewish state and Jewish self-determination is also a form of antisemitism.”

Ultimately, context is important in understanding the danger of sitting idly by and accepting a compromise on Durban II, according to Jeremy Jones.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how Durban II fits into a much broader process of legitimising antisemitism, of challenging Western ideals of free enquiry and debate. And the fact that it is named an anti-racism conference should not be given any more credence than the fact that Communist Germany called itself the Democrat Republic,” he concluded.




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