After Geneva: Overcoming the smearjob on UN anti-racism process

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In 2001, the United Nations convened the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, to deal with a range of issues related to racism and its legacies, including the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the appropriation of the land and resources of the world's indigenous peoples, and the human rights of the Palestinians.

The government of Israel responded to the anti-Semitic actions of a few marginal NGOs which participated in Durban by branding the entire WCAR – widely seen as a high water mark in the international battle against racism -- as an anti-Semitic “hatefest.” This became the pretext for Israel and its allies to walk out of the conference in an attempt to prevent Israel's behaviour vis-à-vis the Palestinians as well as other vitally important matters from being addressed.

The U.S. government, which had been adamant in its refusal to address the legacy of the slave trade and the attendant call for reparations long before the Durban conference was convened, seized the opportunity and joined the Israeli walkout.

Although the WCAR had to proceed without Israel and the U.S., it was able to produce a ground-breaking document known as the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) that addressed a range of issues rooted in racism and laid out a plan for dealing with them. Following standard practice, the UN set up a review conference to assess the progress made in addressing the Programme of Action contained in the DDPA. This conference was convened in Geneva in late April.

In 2007, Canada's Harper government embraced the Israeli-Zionist contention that the 2001 Durban conference had been an anti-Semitic “hatefest” and became the first government in the world to announce that it would boycott the DDPA Review. Exploiting the opportunity to undermine debate on the very topics they were determined to avoid – Palestine and reparations for the slave trade – Israel and the United States subsequently joined the Canadian-led boycott.

The Canadian, Israeli and American governments' efforts to undermine the Durban Review were complemented by an extensive, elaborate campaign on the part of Zionist and pro-Israeli organizations.

Despite these efforts to undermine the DDPA Review, an impressive array of delegates from around the world gathered in Geneva from April 20 through 24 to carry it out.

Unfortunately, the opening day of the conference was dominated by controversy generated by the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has gained international notoriety for attempting to cast doubt on the Nazi holocaust. In the event, Ahmadinejad's speech dealt with a range of issues, with the bulk of it criticizing Israel's expulsion of Palestinians from their land in 1948, its continuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the unquestioning support that Israel receives from the United States and other countries of the West.

Traumatized by the abuse it received at the hands of the Israel Lobby described above, the UN refused to allow side events focusing on Israel and Palestine to take place inside the Palais des Nations. But members of many Israel Lobby groups circumvented this rule by giving their Zionist-dominated workshops titles which gave the appearance of offering presentations on topics addressing subjects related to racism. But the speeches and discussions in these sessions featured over-the-top rants from stars like Bernard-Henri Lévy, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and Jon Voight about Iranian and Palestinian “anti-Semitism,” “nazism” and allegations of racism against Israelis.

These high profile apologists for everything Israeli were just part of an extensive array of Zionist organizations that participated in the Durban Review en masse. Rather than contributing to a substantive debate, these groups disrupted the conference and made it difficult for other participants to discuss their issues. In one workshop on Islamophobia, Palestinians were described by a member of the World Jewish Congress as a people “who educate their men to rape their children.” (Imagine the banner headlines that would have been generated in Canada's Asper-dominated press if Arabs or Muslims had made similar anti-Jewish remarks.) The disruptions became so extreme that the United Nations ended up removing the credentials of hundreds of the Zionist delegates at mid-week and expelling them from the remainder of the conference.

The aggressive, in-your-face approach of these Zionist forces generated a significant backlash among conference participants. While a strong commitment to combating anti-Semitism was reiterated throughout, there was a buzz within the conference about the destructive, abusive tactics deployed by the various Zionist organizations. Despite these disruptive tactics, the Review Conference managed to generate some excellent analysis and participants were able to engage in spirited debate. In the end, the recommendations generated by the 2001 conference at Durban were reaffirmed by the participants in this Review.

Alternate voices

The Review Conference featured a number of outstanding speakers and panellists. Michel Warschawski of the Alternate Information Center in Israel provided a particularly powerful analysis of the significance of the original Durban conference and the events that have transpired since. According to Warschawski, the Durban conference marked a major success in the struggle against colonialism – so successful that it became a catalyst for an alliance of Zionist and neoconservative elements determined to mount a global counter-offensive and roll back the progress that the forces opposed to colonialism made there.

Warschawski traced how this counter-offensive focused initially on terrorism, shifting later to Islamic terrorism, and finally ended up indicting Islam itself as the enemy. All this was promoted under the rubric of the Clash of Civilizations, with Judeo-Christianity portrayed as engaged in a battle to the death with Islamic Barbarism in an open-ended war. Those who rejected this framework were accused of being anti-Semitic.

In an aside, Warschawski countered the hysterical Zionist insistence that anti-Semitism is growing by leaps and bounds, noting that while it continues to exist, European anti-Semitism is coming from right wing Christian sources rather than those rooted in Islam. He concluded his comments on this subject on a positive note, offering evidence that anti-Semitism is in fact declining over time.

Warschawski argued that Palestine is the frontline in this war and that the Israeli Wall constitutes the dividing line between Judeo-Christian “Civilization” and Islamic “Barbarism,” with the underlying issue being the attempt by the Zionists and neoconservatives to re-impose empire, which has been badly shaken by 40 years of successful anti-colonial struggle. He noted that in the context of the Durban Review and the attempts to weaken and undermine it, progressive forces had been put on the defensive and forced backwards, explaining that this is what the boycott campaign and the attempts to disrupt the conference from within had been all about. Warschawski concluded by imploring activists to dedicate themselves to ensuring that they are fully prepared for the upcoming Durban Plus Ten review so that the original, successful struggle can be resumed.

Criticizing the Harper government's boycott, a coalition of the groups from Canadian civil society that participated in the Review Conference issued a statement addressing our common concerns and met with the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to explain them.

Our collective experience at the Durban Review Conference shows that it is vitally important for civil society to have its voice heard and its issues addressed in world forums like this to ensure that the Durban Programme of Action is followed. Without the presence of civil society to counter them, highly organized campaigns by groups like the Israel Lobby and its political allies will bring this vitally important process to an end.

Sid Shniad is a co-chair of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada). He was one of the three-member IJV delegation to the Durban Review Conference in Geneva.

A version of this article will be published in the May/June 2009 issue of Canadian Jewish Outlook magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.

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