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George Baumgarten:
Photo: Luiz Rampelotto.

“Durban Review Conference: Who Were the True Statesmen, and Who the Buffoons?

By George Baumgarten

[New-York-Written May 2009]    The Delegates had arrived for the Conference in Geneva—the U.N.’s European Headquarters—with no small measure of trepidation. They recalled what had happened eight years before, when the first racism conference had degenerated into an international farce. On that occasion, the World Jewish Community, the United States and the West in general had been caught unawares. This time, they were determined to be ready.

The original conference had been held in Durban, South Africa, in late August and early September 2001, barely a few days before the terrorist attack on the United States. It had been called “Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance”. A noble title for a just cause, oft-ignored and still with us in the modern world.

The Durban Conference produced a final “outcome document”, listing numerous problems of discrimination. It had only a mild reference to the Israel-Palestinian situation: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation”. A further reference was even milder, calling for an end to “suffering”, “…thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process…”. Mild and [nominally] even-handed. At least it acknowledged the right of Israel to exist, as a sovereign, independent state.

But there was a “parallel” N.G.O. (Non-Governmental Organizations) conference at Durban. And it was at that conference that speaker after speaker came to the microphones, to insult and defame the Jewish state, in a process that came to be known as “Israel-bashing”.

Consider, for example, the words of Dr. Ali Abdussalam Treiki, Libya’s “Secretary of the People’s General Committee of African Unity”:

“The Palestinian people were expelled collectively from their land. They are daily exposed to killings for political reasons. What could be more racist than what is
happening in Palestine?”

And this from the man now widely expected, as Africa’s favorite son, to be the President of the coming 64th United Nations General Assembly. Israel and the United States both found all this so revolting, that they walked out of the Conference.

The N.G.O Conference at Durban also produced an “outcome document”. But this one was felt to be so virulently defamatory of Israel (and, by extension, of all the West) that Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson—the Conference Chair and former President of Ireland—flatly refused to have it issued or printed as an official U.N. document. The world Jewish community—and the West in general—had been largely “caught napping” at Durban. When a new opportunity presented itself, they were determined not to be caught again.

It was decided to hold a “Durban Review Conference” in April of 2009, eight years after the original one. Again, there was to be an “outcome document”, with drafts circulated in advance. But—unlike Durban—there was not to be a formal N.G.O. Conference at Geneva. And this time, Israel, the U.S. and the West were ready.

There were several “preparatory meetings’ scheduled, prior to the actual Durban Review in April. After coming to power in January, the Obama administration decided to participate in the preparatory meeting scheduled for February 2009. As Israel had already announced that it would boycott the Durban Review, the American delegation was put under much pressure—especially from right-wing and Republican Jews, who were virtually certain that Obama would participate,and said so. But the Americans—contrary to the expectations of their detractors—decided to stay away, and several other countries followed suit.

I had asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last summer what he thought the U.N. could do, so as to avoid “yet another farce of anti-Israel buffoons”. He gave me a long answer, but made it clear that he was determined to actually accomplish something, to combat racism and related practices.

I also spoke, more recently, to Navi Pillay, the U.N.’s new Human Rights Commissioner (ironically, a Durban native), formerly a Judge on the U.N.’s International Criminal Court. She had come to meet with some of the countries boycotting
the Conference, and agreed that the way to deal with evil was to “confront it, not ignore it”.

Despite her best efforts, Israel, the U.S. and a handful of other countries decided to stay away from the “Durban Review”. A draft “outcome document” was prepared, but found to still be objectionable. So the drafting committee—largely at Judge Pillay’s urging, if not insistence—rewrote it and reduced its size from 48 to 17 pages. It contains no references to Israel, or any other country. And despite a campaign of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to outlaw defamation of Islam only, it condemns the defamation of any and all faiths. In spite of this, the Israelis found it objectionable, since it referred to a mention of Israel as a “racist state” (a phrase believed to come from Durban’s N.G.O document).

The Conference opened on Monday 20 April (ironically, the 120th birthday of Adolf Hitler) with statements by Secretary-General Ban and High Commissioner Pillay. Ban stressed the need for the conference, saying “The politics of xenophobia is on the rise”. And High Commissioner Pillay, mindful of those countries which were absent, hoped that they “…would still join efforts to make tangible changes…”.

But the highlight of the Conference was the address on Monday afternoon of the Iranian President. The only Head of State to address the Durban Review, Ahmedinajad  said the victors of World War Two had “…sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine”, also calling Israelis “…racist perpetrators of genocide”. His words were greeted with some applause, but the delegates of 23 European Nations left the hall in a mass migration for the exits. Even Jordan was rumored to have left, though I was assured by their Ambassador at the U.N. in New York that this was not so.

Three days later, Ahmadinejad held a press conference, in which he informed his listeners that “…the Israeli officials are a group of professional murderers and mercenaries at the service of the global arrogance”, saying also that “There is no doubt that the Zionist regime is on the verge of collapse”.

Ahmadinejad’s speech on Monday was interrupted by catcalls from Jewish demonstrators, one of them in a rainbow-colored clown wig. They were mostly French students, and rumored not to have come at their own expense. The Conference authorities made a great show of expelling them, and called a press conference next day, to give details of their expulsion. Various right-wing Jewish organizations have tried to portray the Conference as a major disaster, but their cries have only sounded increasingly desperate.

The major part of the credit for the Conference’s success—what success there was—must surely belong to Judge Pillay. She managed to get a reasonable outcome document,  overwhelmingly passed. What it will really accomplish to cure very real problems of racism worldwide…remains to be seen. President Ahmadinejad can only be said to have discredited himself---in a year when he faces re-election in June. And there are said to be murmurings in Iran of unrest, concern that his obsession with the Palestinians and attacks on Israel have been at a price of neglect of his people, and their problems.

So one must really look back and ask: Who were the statesman, and WHO…the buffoons?


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