The Benefits and Costs of Anti-racism

News Analysis

Not why we’re Here: Delegates walk out of the conference room to protest the sentiments of the keynote speech by Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
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Not why we’re Here: Delegates walk out of the conference room to protest the sentiments of the keynote speech by Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood up in Geneva on April 20 to address a United Nations conference on racism, the much-ballyhooed Durban II, he took what was supposed to be an international campaign against bigotry and turned it into a showcase for his own malignant breed of hate.

His speech, a bizarre, rambling attack on Zionism and the West, prompted a stormy walkout by two dozen delegations and drew furious attacks from senior U.N. officials, including mild-mannered Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who almost never criticizes heads of member-states. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere — in the speech right after Ahmadinejad’s — expressed the common reaction, that “the president of Iran” had spoken “in a way that threatens the very focus of this conference.”

Israeli officials and leaders of American Jewish organizations responded as angrily as anyone. They probably shouldn’t have. Ahmadinejad may have done them a favor. Before he opened his mouth, Israel and its allies were the main focus of grumbling at the conference, because of their months-long efforts to discredit the event as an anti-Israel hatefest. By the time the Iranian leader was done, conference organizers were falling over each other to disavow any anti-Israel intent. For most of the delegates, Ahmadinejad’s ranting wasn’t the true face of the racism conference but a deliberate assault on it.

It’s difficult to imagine anybody other than Ahmadinejad prompting a mass walkout in solidarity with Israel by the entire European Union, the Arab kingdoms of Morocco and, reportedly, Jordan — plus the U.N.’s own “rapporteur on racism,” the official in charge of the overall anti-racism campaign itself.

When the gathering voted the next day to approve the much anticipated, painstakingly negotiated conference declaration — three days ahead of schedule, apparently to prevent any further debate or amendments — delegates were publicly congratulating themselves for avoiding extremism. Some hinted, too, that the text showed the pro-Israel activists’ worries were overblown. Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, speaking just after the vote, said the declaration was “the right answer to the disinformation, the misinformation that had raged throughout the preparatory process.”

Suspicion of the U.N. anti-racism process has been intense in Israel and America since the original World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance convened in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. The gathering saw a determined, noisy effort by Arab and Muslim countries to renew the charge that Zionism is racism. A simultaneous conference of U.N.-affiliated nongovernmental organizations filled Durban’s streets with riotous displays of rank antisemitism. The United States and Israel walked out in midconference.

This year’s Geneva meeting was a follow-up to the original Durban gathering, intended to review the progress of its anti-racism recommendations. Plans were announced to stiffen the anti-Israel language of Durban I, later softened under European pressure. A preparatory committee, set up in 2007, was chaired by a Libyan diplomat.

As planning for Geneva gathered steam, American Jewish organizations mounted a two-pronged effort, first to tone down the planned conference declaration, and second to convince Western nations to boycott.

But Israel wasn’t the only worry. The 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference was lobbying for an international ban on “defamation of religion.” The measure would call on nations to criminalize speech — cartoons and novels, for instance — that insult a religion.

“This would turn human rights protections upside down,” said a key Jewish negotiator, Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. “It would no longer be the individual who is protected from the state, but religions and groups that would be protected from individuals.”

Earlier this year, the Obama administration quietly adopted four “red lines,” or conditions without which it would not attend: dropping demands for reparations from former slave-owning countries; removing the “defamation of religion” provision; dropping any direct reference to Israel, and, touchiest of all, removing a “reaffirmation” of the original 2001 Durban document, with its linkage of Israel and racism.

As a result of the Obama red lines, the final weeks before the Geneva meeting saw a last, furious round of negotiating over the text. It was the Russian ambassador, according to numerous sources, who persuaded the Muslim bloc to back down on key points. There was no mention of Israel. Slavery reparations were dropped. The ban on “defamation of religion” was replaced by a call to outlaw speech that “constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.”

Given the potentially disastrous effect of the proposed declaration about “defamation,” negotiators were pleased: “[T]he general consensus among human rights organizations was that the rewording of the draft resolved that,” said Iain Levine, program director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

No less important, Levine said, the final draft specified that any “incitement” ban must be “consistent with freedom of opinion and expression.”

Despite the concessions, the Obama White House finally decided that the text was inadequate — mainly because it still “reaffirmed” the 2001 Durban declaration — and decided to stay home. Eight other countries sided with Washington, including Israel, Australia, Italy and Germany.

That was a large enough bloc to draw the organizers’ attention — and resentment.

Russia, which had fought hard for the Muslim concessions, and moderate Arab states, which had helped line up their fellow Muslims, felt snubbed.

Also disappointed were American civil rights groups, which viewed the U.N. anti-racism process as historic. The three largest civil rights groups, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stated they were “profoundly disappointed” and that the American withdrawal “will only undermine efforts to address human rights and civil rights around the world.” The Congressional Black Caucus also said it was “deeply dismayed.”

There were hints that negotiators felt duped — or, as Levine put it, “that the withdrawals weren’t necessarily in good faith.”

A quick read of the two declarations — from 2001 and 2009 — helps explain the disappointment. Efforts to meet Jewish objections, while incomplete, were substantial. The original Durban document, routinely criticized for calling Zionism racism, actually doesn’t say that. Negotiators had removed that language. Durban I mentions Israel only twice — once in a paragraph calling for Palestinian rights to self-determination together with Israel’s right to security, and again in a call for continuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Pro-Israel activists counter that the accusation of racism is implicit in the fact that Israel is singled out by name — the only country directly mentioned — in a document that is all about racism. Moreover, 10 other paragraphs aimed at Israel, including complaints about “occupation” and “return of refugees,” were simply “cleansed” by removing Israel’s name without changing the obvious intent, Gaer said.

As for the 2009 document, it makes no mention of Israel at all — except by “reaffirming” the first document.

What the document does do is call for a virtual revolution in the way societies treat minorities. The declaration names the effects of racism and ethnic hate — underdevelopment, hunger, youth violence, persecution of Gypsies and much more — and calls on the world’s nations to change. It specifically calls for countries to maintain an “impartial and independent judiciary,” to criminalize violence against women and children, protect human rights activists, and defend democracy and freedom of speech and opinion.

It’s not exactly the Declaration of Independence, but for a document approved unanimously by the nations of the world — except for nine boycotters — it might well be called historic. Certainly, the thought of Saudi Arabia and China signing on to those ideas is worth a cheer or two. The question for supporters of Israel is, what would it cost to join the celebration? On the flip side, what does it cost to fight it?

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

For text of 2009 Durban II Geneva declaration, click here.

For text of 2001 Durban declaration, click here.

For text of Iranian president’s Geneva speech, click here.

For text of Norwegian foreign minister’s Geneva speech, click here.

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