Monday, December 08, 2008

Durban II

Hillel Neuer (l) of Geneva-based UN Watch and Aaron Jacob of AJC (r)  in New York, December 2008

The last UN Conference against Racism in Durban, held in late August 2001, quickly turned into a disgraceful spectacle of Israel-bashing and downright antisemitism. Anyone interested in a personal, though occasionally melodramatic account, of the conference, should check out the "Durban Diaries," by a member of the European Union of Jewish Students who attended it as part of a large delegation of the NGO. A follow-up to the Durban conference, which was actually the third UN Conference against Racism, will be held at the end of April 2009. 

On Monday, December 8, Hillel Neuer of the Geneva-based NGO UN Watch briefed a small audience of AJC Access members in New York on what happened at Durban I and what might happen at Durban II. It does not look good.

The first Durban conference consisted of the actual governmental conference attended by UN member states, an NGO forum, and a series of street demonstration in the South African city. It was at the NGO forum and street demonstrations where some of the worst excesses of the "anti-racism" conference took place. But even the governmental conference involved a protracted fight by the US, Israel, and some of the European countries, against a declaration that specifically accused Israel of apartheid, crimes against humanity, and genocide, without mentioning any other states. This particular part of the declaration had been formulated at the Asian regional conference in February 2001.

At the 2007 preparatory conference for Durban II, Libya was chosen to chair the 2009 conference against racism. The 19 vice chairs chosen included Cuba and Iran. Worse, the current draft declaration includes a verbatim copy of the 2001 Tehran wording. 

Neuer outlined 3 categories of problematic language in the declaration proposals so far - a longer review of the document has been published in a report titled "Shattering the Red Lines." UN Watch has expressed concern in
  1. specifically anti-Israel language, including the charge that the Law of Return is inherently racist
  2. broadly anti-Western material
  3. a campaign by the Islamic states  to import anti-blasphemy provisions and legitimize them in international law under the notion of “defamation of religion”
The latest draft proposals hammered out at the preparatory conference, by no means final, nevertheless testify to the direction in which Durban II might be headed.

So far, only Canada has announced that it is not attending the conference. Israel will be making a decision soon, and the U.S. will do so after the inaugaration of Barack Obama as President. Meanwhile, the Europeans have pledged to maintain certain red lines that, if crossed by the conference, will compel them to walk out of the process. However, it remains to be seen whether they will act on this. 

I hope to post more details later.


Ariel said...

I'm wondering what is the actual relevance of this conference. I don't mean that sarcastically (necessarily).

Ariel said...

I remember the first time I heard about Durban. I was at a lecture in DC being given by a prominent anti-apartheid Afrikaaner (one who had spent years in prison and was a friend of Mandela's--a very impressive man). After the lecture they showed a documentary about demonstrations at the conference. The main point of the film was to highlight the continuing poverty of black South Africans, but it also showed a good deal of anti-Israel stuff.

What was extremely unfortunate was that as a result the audience, which included both Jews and blacks, became polarized. The Jews, of course, objected to the depictions of Israel. I did too, but just as much I objected to the inclusion of what seemed like an unrelated issue in an event that was supposed to concern building a broad international coalition of various NGOs on the question of third world poverty. The Afrikaaner had spoken of the potential for just such a decentralized global movement.

In the question and answer period I asked whether linking up the issues of poverty in South Africa and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have no immediate connection, would threaten the viability of such a coalition or, in any case, alienate certain potential allies (i.e. pretty much any liberal Jewish group otherwise inclined to join). The answer I got entirely side-stepped the question: "You should think about why Palestinian violence is defined as 'terrorism' while Israeli violence is not." I presume this was supposed to show something about racism, but of course it had nothing to do with what I was asking. What I had intended to point out was that, when bringing together a wide variety of organizations, one has to keep the issue focus quite narrow, because any broadening of the issue may make it difficult or impossible for any given member organization, which has its own identity and priorities, to remain in the coalition.

When the speaker gave his nonanswer to my question, I noticed several of the black audience members nodding in agreement. When the event ended, several Jewish audience members came to me to thank me for asking the question. They, however, also missed a good deal of the point, because it was clear from what they said to me that all they were interested in was defending Israel from any criticism. Altogether it was a rather disillusioning experience.

Amos said...

There is probably more potential for re-building bridges between mainstream Jewish and African-American groups interested in social justice today. It is not difficult for, say a Jewish group, to explain how the anti-Israel rhetoric is extremely harmful to causes such as poverty in South Africa, besides being pernicious in its own right.

I think that once people recognize that their causes are being manipulated to further unrelated political agendas, which they do not wholly support, they will be loathe to endorse a circus of the sort that Durban I became.

As for the question of the relevance of the conference - I think the goal was to denounce past and present racism, colonialism, and imperialism with a declaration endorsed by all the member states of the UN. Obviously, such a declaration has no binding power upon any of the members. But, as Hillel Neuer argued in his talk, the language used in these declarations leaves significant traces in discussions of racism around the world.

Noah K said...

I'm with Ariel in the sense that this conference strikes me as pretty irrelevant. What did you tell me Amos that Rousseau said about international relations? It's all about power and legitimacy? So this conference will confer a modicum of legitimacy to these states' agendas...Is the irony of holding it in South Africa not lost on anyone? If ever there was a place to see violent racism/xenophobia first hand on a level that debunks any facile explanations,that's it.

Amos said...

The argument made by Hillel Neuer and a different speaker (whose name I didn't catch, but who is a former Israeli ambassador to the UN) is that the kinds of declarations that Durban produced are taken seriously in many countries. They end up in libraries and governmental archives. People refer to them, and they may not always realize how ridiculous it is for Libya to be chairing a human rights conference.

The Rousseau quotation invoked by that other speaker is from the Social Contract. It's not unambiguous though:

The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty.

The speaker's point was that both small states such as Israel and superpowers such as the U.S. need legitimacy to get things done in the international system. These kinds of conferences delegitimize Israel, and that delegitimization has consequences.

Amos said...

The other speaker's name is Aaron Jacob, who is the assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's office of government and international affairs in D.C. He was born in Mumbai! Thanks to L.A. for the info.

Anonymous said...

Was the Afrikaaner activist's name Breyen Breytenbach by any chance? He had an essay in Harper's December issue. It was an open letter to Mandela and talked about the brutality of contemporary South Africa. Some pretty vivid details and a lot of disillusionment with the ANC and its corruption and totalitarian tendencies.