For many members of our community, the word “Durban” is indelibly associated with antisemitism. The primary reason for this is not so much the September 2001 World Conference against Racism as the associated NGO Forum, which was unquestionably marred by virulent antisemitic behaviour by a number of Non-Government Organisations.
Unfortunately, the bitter taste left by the NGO Forum has led to the stigmatisation of the whole UN anti-racism conference by overzealous critics who have not mentioned the positive aspects of the event. Of course not all the NGOs behaved appallingly, but the blatant antisemitism of some tarred the official gathering of government representatives as well. This is why, by conflating the NGO Forum with the main conference, many members of our community believe that the whole meeting was antisemitic.
When UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson was shown an example of a clearly antisemitic publication she stood up, waved the offending booklet and said: “This conference is aimed at achieving human dignity. My husband is a cartoonist, I love political cartoons, but when I see the racism in this cartoon booklet of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, I must say that I am a Jew — for those victims are hurting. I know that you people will not understand easily, but you are my friends, so I tell you that I am a Jew, and I will not allow this fractiousness to torpedo the conference.”
Other UN officials also condemned the behaviour of some NGOs.
It might be useful to look at what actually happened in 2001.
The official Durban declaration comprised 60 pages of detailed discussion of racism affecting Asians, Africans, migrants, refugees, indigenous peoples, Roma or gypsies, Jews and Muslims. Thoroughly acceptable recommendations were made about how to address the causes of racism, to prevent it, and to establish remedies for its victims. The declaration expressed “deep concern” about “the increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia” and in racism and violence against “Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities” alike.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was strongly reaffirmed in the conference declaration. All states were called upon to counter antisemitism, and there was a declaration that the Holocaust must never be forgotten. Those who argue that reaffirming Durban I through the Durban II meeting in Geneva amounts to Holocaust denial are simply not telling the truth and are exaggerating the extent of the problem. In fact, only 6 out of 341 paragraphs of Durban I refer to Israel/Palestine.
The first of the six paragraphs says: “We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” The second states: “We recognise with deep concern the increase in antisemitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities.”
The remaining paragraphs include references to “the plight of the Palestinian people” and “the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel,” as well as calling upon “Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom.” The rest of that paragraph reads: “We recognise the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognise 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.”
The AJDS concurs with both the sentiments expressed and the words used here, as have many governments and organisations around the world.
Where we differ with Durban I is with the focus on Israel, to the exclusion of problems in race and ethnic relations in neighbouring countries under authoritarian regimes, particularly the use and promotion of racist, antisemitic stereotypes in their media.
A whiff of hypocrisy is involved here. In a litany of charges against Israel, one is conspicuous by its absence: Israel’s highly unsatisfactory treatment of Sudanese refugees. But lambasting Israel for this would expose those who made the Darfuris and other Africans refugees in the first place.
Other accusations made against Durban II include the fact that the review committee is chaired by Libya, Cuba, and Iran, but such a role is formal, rather than functional, and has no effect on what is proposed. In addition, there are vice chairs and other functionaries from many democracies who have equal rights. The organisers of the Durban II preparatory event managed to schedule events on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which only adds fat to the fire, but then, Kevin Rudd had the same problem with his National Summit coinciding with Pesach…
The question remains — what to do about Durban II?
On balance, we hold the view that a boycott would be ineffective. The UN itself is strongly concerned not to have another mess. “The Durban review conference is not, and should not be been as, a repetition of the 2001 World Conference,” according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour in her opening statement to the preparatory committee. “It is rather a platform to evaluate progress, an opportunity to reinvigorate commitments, and a vehicle to fine-tune responses in a purposeful and contextual manner.”
Boycotting the conference will only leave the extremists free to impose their views on others. It would be far better to engage with them and help to negotiate appropriate and relevant resolutions which act as an international benchmark.
Racism is a scourge on humanity, and our country is well positioned to lead the fight against it. Despite the doomsayers, Australia should be represented at Geneva.