The World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 was one of the most hate-filled, antisemitic, anti-Israel gatherings in recent memory. A follow-up conference has now been scheduled for April 2009 in Geneva. Though officially known as the Durban Review Conference, it’s been dubbed “Durban II,” and for good reason — it promises much of the same.
To date, Canada is the only nation to have officially pulled out of Durban II. But as was abundantly clear this past week in Geneva, where more than 100 Jewish organizational leaders met to discuss a strategy for dealing with Durban II, support is growing for a wider pullout from the conference. Indeed, talk was even heard of holding an alternative summit to deal seriously and efficaciously with pressing issues on the global anti-racism agenda.
The original conference back in 2001 was hijacked from the beginning. Under the aegis of the congenitally dysfunctional and now-defunct United Nations Commission for Human Rights, it was intended to identify consensus-building measures for collective international action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. But with their insurmountable numbers, Islamic and non-aligned countries commandeered it from the outset.
They took every opportunity to de-legitimize the State of Israel and undermine the historical experience of the Jewish people. Important anti-racism issues dealing with race, gender and poverty were overshadowed by politicized rhetoric and hateful accusations.
The U.N. commission has since been disbanded and replaced by the Human Rights Council, which is overseeing preparation for the Durban Review Conference. But the change has been in name only.
The usual suspects — some of which have wretched human rights records — have already turned the review conference into an international indictment of the West, the United States and Israel for allegedly promoting Islamophobia, the defamation of Islam and racial profiling.
In a chilling echo of the preparatory meeting for the original Durban conference — a meeting from which Jewish delegates were barred from participating — the two key Durban II preparatory commissions in 2008 were scheduled on the major Jewish festival of Passover and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. And lest any doubts remain about the intentions of the conference’s planners, one need only look to a recent preparatory meeting at which Iran led the charge in blocking accreditation for the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy.
By now, it has become fairly clear that Durban II will pick up where the original conference left off. It will provide yet another smokescreen to help regimes such as Iran, Libya and Cuba camouflage their own serial human rights violations. As was the case in 2001, the anti-racism conference is making a mockery of those who take human rights issues seriously.
Canada, to its credit, has decided to have no part in yet another hopelessly politicized and corrupt international forum. The Canadian government properly understood malevolent forces had already derailed the review conference, and displaying courageous leadership, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration made the principled decision to not support the allocation of dedicated U.N. funding for the Durban Review Conference and, ultimately, to pull out altogether.
Canada correctly saw early conference plans for what they were: a ransom note from the event’s hijackers, who are effectively holding hostage legitimate and necessary discussion of real historic wrongs and pressing contemporary human rights issues.
The time has come for all other democratic nations to follow suit and publicly admonish those behind Durban II. Recent reports indicate that Israel and the United States are considering doing just that, collaborating on a strategy to join Canada in dissociating from this conference. This is most welcome news, and ought to encourage other countries, particularly the vastly outnumbered democracies of the world, to follow suit.
Shunning Durban II, however, does not mean that legitimate human rights advocates have to abandon the field. The antidote to that poison lies in holding a real anti-racism conference — one that has not been hijacked at the outset by the narrow vision of hatred, nor derailed by blinkered political agendas in which impunity and impotence trump accountability and action.
Such a conference, perhaps hosted by Canada, could bring together governments and NGOs from around the world that are dedicated to moving forward on international anti-racism and human rights issues. Conducted in an atmosphere of good will and un-tethered from the tainted and corrupt Durban process, such a gathering could move the yardsticks on a whole range of issues, including those relating to race, gender, religious intolerance and poverty.
It is time now for the global community to collectively assert that purposeful international action to combat racism and xenophobia can no longer be sacrificed to satisfy visceral hatred of Israel, the West and the Jewish people.
Bernie Farber is the CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.