Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

Stay away from Durban II

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is secretary-general of the UN's World Conference Against Racism, scheduled for April, in Geneva. Referred to as "Durban II," the meeting is meant as a follow-up to the infamous 2001 "Durban I" UN racism conference in South Africa. After her appointment, Pillay, a Durban native, was asked by the city's mayor "to rescue" the town's name. Aware that her human-rights credentials are tied to the success of the conference, Pillay has made it a top priority. She used her maiden speech at September's session of the Human Rights Council to champion a revisionist history of Durban I, and her latest effort to promote the upcoming event appeared in Haaretz this week ("The Anti-Racism Debate," December 16).

Although Pillay was writing ostensibly for Israelis, she knows their foreign minister has already declared that Israel will not attend the conference; her real target was thus President-elect Barack Obama. The outgoing administration has not made a decision regarding U.S. participation, which means Obama and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton have it in their power to discredit the meeting by staying away. But pressure to attend, from Pillay and others, is mounting.

Pillay argues that attendance is appropriate because of what occurred at Durban I. She is right to focus on this. After all, the first objective of Durban II, as organizers determined last year, is "to foster the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action." That declaration, adopted by governmental delegates at the end of Durban I, asserts that Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism. This is the only country-specific accusation in a document purporting to address international racism and xenophobia. Regardless of the quantity of new vitriol in Durban II's final product, therefore, participation would necessarily legitimize a global event dedicated to "implementing" the mantra of Israeli racism.

Pillay attempts to allay fears with a revisionist account of Durban I, writing that, "the controversy that tainted the 2001 Durban Conference ... was caused by the anti-Semitic behavior of some non-governmental organizations at the sidelines of the conference." She says she is committed to the proposition that "the concerns ... that the review conference will become a platform for denigrating Israel must be assuaged." She then adds: "Seven years ago, states did so by elevating the conference's outcome above the hatred and hostility that took place on its periphery."

Pillay's tale is patently false. At meetings of the governmental drafting committee at Durban I, I watched as virtually every clause on anti-Semitism was deleted. And how did participating states "elevate" the outcome, after the U.S. and Israel made their opposition plain? The European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference cut a deal: Mention of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust could stay in - but with a condemnation of Israeli racism.

For decades, the UN has tried to label Israel as racist, to tie it to the mast of apartheid South Africa, and to sink it with the same moral indignation, and economic and political isolation. In 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racism. When the resolution was rescinded in 1991, a plan to resurrect it began almost immediately. Act II culminated in Durban I; Act III is upon us. The so-called draft outcome document for Durban II accuses Israel of committing "a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity, [and] a form of genocide."

Pillay's op-ed provides a clear window onto the Durban tactic. She fawns over the Durban declaration's statement that, "the Holocaust must never be forgotten," and its expression of "deep concern about the rise in anti-Semitism." Then she proceeds to ignore the demonization of racist Israel and its connection to anti-Semitism and the murdering of Jews here and now.

Two weeks ago, General Assembly president Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann made a similar pitch for rupturing the bond between Jews and Israel, declaring, "I have a great love for the Jewish people and this has been true all my life. I have never hesitated to condemn the crimes of the Holocaust ...." He then accused Israel of "apartheid," which "must be outlawed," advocating a "campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel."

By contrast, the Durban II draft doesn't mention Sudan, and the final version will be no different. On December 9, Pillay reminded a reporter that the High Commissioner's office had "set up [a] commission of inquiry, but did not find a Sudanese genocidal policy, but rather 'genocidal intent' committed by a few individuals." That commission maintained that the past decade's atrocities in Darfur did not constitute an ethnic or racially driven conflict, even though it was perpetrated by Arab militias against African tribal victims. Hundreds of thousands raped and murdered, 2.5 million displaced. But no genocide.

Ultimately, Pillay asks readers precisely the right question: "States have a responsibility to show leadership against racial discrimination and intolerance. What message does a state boycott send to those who are suffering from racism ... [and] to those who perpetuate racism?"

The answer: A boycott of Durban II sends a message that the real victims of racism are not alone. A boycott denies legitimacy to a platform for hatemongers and a cover for human-rights abusers. For states to show leadership against racism and intolerance, they must join Canada and Israel and stay away.

This article first appeared in Haaretz.