U.N. Anti-Racism Conference Won’t Be in Durban This Time Around

By Marc Perelman

Published April 29, 2008.
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There will be no replay of the infamous Durban conference.

After months of quiet lobbying from Western governments and United Nations officials, African countries announced last week that their continent would not host the follow-up meeting of the controversial anti-racism conference that was held in South Africa in 2001. That meeting was marred by anti-Israel outbursts that prompted the American and Israeli delegations to leave.

The African group at the U.N. in Geneva said that it would not host the conference — citing, as the official reason, the financial cost it entails — and would recommend that the U.N. be the host in one of the European cities where it has an official presence, such as Geneva, Vienna or Paris.

This was the result that some Western governments have been hoping for, given the belief that a European location could provide the U.N. with more control over the proceedings of the forum of nongovernmental organizations and in the streets where most of the incidents took place in Durban seven years ago.

“This is a step we wanted to see happen so that the street aspect of Durban is not repeated,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a monitoring group based in Geneva affiliated with the American Jewish Committee. “But this does not change the concerns we have about the substance of the conference, and what we are seeing so far in the preparatory meetings surely sound like we’re headed for Durban II.”

The change in location will also likely mean that the event, which was tentatively scheduled for next spring, will be postponed until the second half of 2009, according to U.N. officials.

The moves are unlikely to be enough to recapture Israel, Canada and the America, which have all indicated that they will likely boycott the meeting.

The preparatory committee for the review conference is chaired by Libya and co-chaired by Cuba. Its meetings featured anti-Israel and anti-Western declarations from representatives of several Muslim countries. At the gathering, the Iranian delegate challenged the accreditation of a major Canadian Jewish organization, prompting days of negotiations before the group, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, announced on April 29 that it was withdrawing its application.

In recent weeks, Canada has announced that it would not attend the review conference for the upcoming meeting, while America and Israel suspended their participation in the preparatory meetings and hinted that they would skip the review conference as well.

“Regardless of where it is held, we just don’t see a change in our position unless we see a dramatic change of course,” said Carolyn Vidino, a spokeswoman for the American mission to the U.N.

One idea being considered in U.N. circles is to scrap the parallel forum for nongovernmental organizations where most of the problems surfaced in Durban. A review conference does not require that such a forum be held, but the idea of not having one is likely to meet fierce resistance from NGOs, which have fought hard to have their voices heard at the U.N. in recent years.

U.N. officials declined comment on specific efforts.

“The struggle against racism is a very important issue which is of great concern to the secretary-general,” said Stephane Dujarric, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s liaison to Jewish groups. “He is following the preparations for the follow-up meeting of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism very closely. He trusts that all states and all NGOs that share the human rights objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will engage constructively to ensure a positive course for the U.N.’s anti-racism agenda.”

In an effort to forestall a repeat of Durban, where many leading human rights NGOs remained silent in the face of anti-Israel and antisemitic incidents, a coalition of 94 NGOs from 25 countries signed an appeal on April 28 calling on participants “to ensure that the Durban Review is not held hostage to those who would politicize it again, but is allowed to focus on holding states accountable for their failure to implement policies to address racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

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