Western governments and United Nations officials are working quietly to prevent a conference on racism, scheduled for Geneva next year, from devolving into another forum for anti-Israel rhetoric.
They are hoping to prevent a reoccurrence of what happened seven years ago at the first U.N. summit on racism, held in Durban — the name of the South African city that has since become a code word for what Jewish advocates perceive as the world body’s anti-Israel bias.
In Durban, a forum for nongovernmental organizations became the locus of anti-Israel rants and public demonstrations, prompting American and Israeli delegations to leave early.
This time, the venue of the forthcoming conference, known as the Durban II review meeting, was moved from South Africa to the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva. More important, the agenda for the April 2009 meeting so far does not include a panel of NGOs that would be held along with the main inter-governmental conference.
“Having the summit held in a more controlled setting is certainly a good thing,” said Shai Franklin, director of International Organizations for the World Jewish Congress. “Durban has become such a polarizing reference that people tend to forget that the main problem there was the NGO forum, not the outcome document.”
Even so, Jewish activists and Western officials are expressing concern that the outcome document of the conference, which is negotiated among member states, could include anti-Israel language. And they bemoan the key roles being played by Libya, Cuba and Iran in organizing the conference.
Canada has already announced that it will not attend, while the United States, Israel and several Western European countries have signaled that they are likely to follow suit if the conference looks like it is going to become an anti-Israel slugfest.
As meetings to prepare for the conference began in Geneva on October 6, representatives of African and Asian countries, as well as several NGOs, also urged the conference to focus on the manifold problems of racism and discrimination and to avoid becoming a staging ground for the Israeli-Arab dispute. The decision to hold the
conference in Switzerland, on U.N. grounds and especially without a potentially volatile NGO forum, could allay those worries.
Since the April gathering will be a “review conference” — to examine progress in the implementation of measures agreed upon in Durban — there is no requirement that an NGO forum be organized. While such a forum could still take place if a country or a sizable group of NGOs demands it, it would require funding, which the traditional Western donors are unlikely to grant. NGOs can still participate in the formal governmental conference as observers.
U.N. officials, for their part, have indicated their preference for a low-key meeting. Several have privately said that the organization was leery of a Durban reprise that would fuel the hostility of Jewish groups and America’s Congress toward the world body. The organization of the conference is formally being handled by a bureau comprising 20 countries and chaired by Libya. Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, is the conference’s secretary general and, as such, can influence the decision-making process.
“Ultimately it would be for NGOs to decide whether or not there is an NGO forum, although the U.N. would, of course, have a say on whether or not it took place on U.N. premises,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Pillay. “So far, there does not seem to be any interest on the NGOs’ part in having one. One point that needs stressing is that the review conference is a very different animal [than] the original [one], which was a huge World Conference with something like 18,000 people attending. This is a much more modest affair, with a very clear focus on the implementation of the 2001 outcome document.”
Hillel Neuer, executive director of United Nations Watch, which is a Geneva-based monitoring group affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, confirmed that “the fact is that to date, no forum has been created, and the current talk is that none will be.”
He was among several Jewish organization officials who nevertheless voiced misgivings about efforts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to inject language specifically targeting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, as well as provisions aimed at curtailing speech critical of religions.
Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a frequent U.N. critic, argued in a recent statement that — contrary to the claims of the U.N. human rights commissioner — “the antisemitism of the first Durban conference was not merely a result of NGOs on the sidelines,” but also visible in the anti-Israel rhetoric of the outcome document. “The slogan of the Durban Review Conference is more accurately ‘United Against Racism: Dignity and Justice for All — except Jews.’ ”
But Michael Meyer, director of communications for the U.N. secretary general in New York, stressed that America’s government and several leading Jewish organizations were still holding out on a final decision on whether to participate. “We want this to be a productive meeting, and we are working to ensure their participation,” he said.