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George Baumgarten
Photo: Luiz Rampelotto.

Durban Review” Conference: Is A Boycott Really Enough?

By George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent

[Written in April , 2009]-   The title sounded like a noble effort to redress centuries of abuse of God-given human rights: “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance”. The reality, however, was something quite different. Far from providing redress for centuries of injustice, this conference turned into a forum for the criticism and “bashing” of a single country: Israel. And—however noble its original intent—it did precious little to fight any of the still-prevalent prejudices in its title. And it will shortly be coming back…to haunt the conscience of the world.

The conference—planned for several years and with several “preparatory” meetings—was held in Durban (ironically, South Africa’s premier beach resort) from 31 August to 7 September 2001. Its American participants must have been just coming home, when their nation came under attack the following week.

The Durban conference produced a relatively mild “Declaration and Programme of Action”, as its final “Outcome Document”. At least it acknowledged the State of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign, independent state:

     63. “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign
     occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-
     determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize
     the right to security for all states in the region, including Israel, and call upon
     all states to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion;

And a further article, in even milder language, provides that

     151. “…respect for the principle of self-determination and the end of all
     suffering, thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process,
     and to develop and prosper in security and freedom;”

But these mild “final outcome” documents are dangerously deceptive. In a meeting of NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations)—often referred-to as the “parallel conference”—numerous speakers stood before the session to foist upon it a stream of anti-Israel invective.

Consider, for example, 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? But super-Powers protect the racist regime, We condemn
     what the Germans did, but do the Jews have the right to repeat what Hitler did?”

This from the man now widely expected, as Africa’s favorite son, to be the President of the forthcoming 64th United Nations General Assembly.

And the Palestinian representative said that

     “…the representative of Israel spoke on behalf of a Minister who declined to address     
     this Assembly. We believe that is an admission that Israel has failed to prove that it is
     a peace-loving country that abides by international law and humanitarian law”.     

After just a few days of this sort of violent, pompous buffoonery, Israel and the United States decided that they’d had enough, and departed the conference.

Originally, the Durban Conference was hardly noticed by the Jewish community and media. No one reported on it from Durban, and at best some articles would make small mention of it, datelined from such places as Washington (!). Worse yet, it is difficult to imagine what all of this Israel-focused invective could possibly accomplish, in the fight against the very real problems of racism et al.

It was decided to hold a “Durban Review Conference”, to be held 20-24 April in Geneva, the headquarters of the UN’s European operations. The “ostensible” purpose of the Review Conference will be to establish just what progress has been made, toward the goals established at Durban. An “Outcome Document” would be issued by the conference, and a draft would be circulated in advance. This has been done, and there have been several “preparatory meetings” to discuss the draft as well as other issues. Far from engaging in a “review”, however, some countries and their supporters have given every appearance of starting another “Israel-bashing” festival.. The original 48-page draft contained numerous [offensive] references to Israel, and few to any other country.

The Obama administration had decided—despite strong criticism from right-wing Jewish groups—to send a team to the preparatory conference in February. But its members were so revolted by the experience that they walked out. The Obama administration ultimately announced—to the great consternation of its detractors-- that it would be boycotting the Conference. Israel did likewise, and Canada and Italy followed suit.

The United Nations, particularly Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay (ironically, a Durban native), seem to truly want to make some progress, toward the goals of eliminating all forms of intolerance. Ban described to me last Summer how he really wants to foster these accomplishments. More recently, Commissioner Pillay agreed with me that the proper response to evil was to “confront it, not ignore it”. The world must ask itself: By boycotting the Conference—or any event—are we engaging in de-facto appeasement?

In an effort to mollify the conference’s critics, the Conference Committee—largely at Commissioner Pillay’s instigation—re-wrote the draft outcome document, reducing its size to a mere 17 pages. This was done also to forestall a possible boycott by the European Union. The Israelis were still not happy with the document, since it cited a declaration from Durban that calls Israel a “racist state”. And no one is talking of ending their boycott.

The boycotting countries are certainly to be commended for refusing to associate themselves with a project of dubious intent…and discriminatory focus. But the Jewish media must understand that it has a sacred obligation to come to Geneva and bear witness. Calumny, prejudice and defamation must be shown always…to be the evils they truly are.

I am reminded of the words of the late Ambassador (later Senator} Daniel Patrick Moynihan, on the imminent passage of the obscenely defamatory “Zionism is Racism” resolution, in 1975 (Repealed 16 years later). “As we were certain lose the vote”, Moynihan wrote, “it was essential that we win the argument”. Or, to paraphrase the immortal words of the late German Pastor Martin Niemoller

    “If the forces of freedom are absent…WHO will be left to speak up!”


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