How Durban II defeated the extremists but failed to tackle racism

  • Date / 2 May 2009

The Durban Review Conference on Racism has just finished in Geneva. Roy Brown reviews the results – good, bad and indifferent.

The Durban Conference on Racism in 2001 had been marred by a display of anti-Semitism unprecedented since the Second World War. Israel and the US had walked out before the end because the draft outcome document equated Zionism with racism. But following a threatened walkout by several European delegations as well, the conference refused to adopt a virulently anti-Semitic NGO statement, and direct references to Israeli aggression were removed from the final document. The text was then approved by consensus by all 189 states present. But apparently all this had been forgotten by 2008 when plans were put in place for a 2009 conference to review progress against racism.

The pro-Israeli lobby fought back against the threat of a repeat of what they called “the Durban hate-fest” with a sizzling combination of spin, misinformation and rhetoric. Anne Bayefski, rottweiler-in-chief of the counter-attack, was particularly effective, leaving even friends of Israel dazed and battered at the roadside. The UN, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Conference organizers, mainstream NGOs and European governments were all grist for her paranoid, vituperative mill. For Bayefski, the willingness of anyone to organize or attend an anti-racism conference exposed their anti-Israeli bias. The choice of opening date for the conference, Holocaust Memorial Day, 20 April, was for Bayefski cynically chosen to commemorate Hitler’s birthday. When the conference finally got under way and no English interpretation of Ahmadinejad’s diatribe was provided in the overflow hall, this was because the UN was cynically preventing NGOs from hearing his poisonous rant. Even the walkout by 23 Western delegations when Ahmadinejad attacked Israel was marred for Bayefski because the delegates returned to the hall when Ahmadinejad had left, thus lending credibility to the conference.

On March 17 a new draft of the Review Conference outcome document had appeared, cleansed of toxic text, with no mention of defamation of religion or Israel, while referring only positively to freedom of expression. The new text almost certainly saved the conference from disaster. But what mattered for the Zionistas was not that it had become almost squeaky clean, but that paragraph 1 endorsed the Durban I document which, they claimed, equated Zionism with racism – even though anyone who cares to read it can see that it does not.

Nevertheless, for liberal freethinkers and those who are seriously concerned about human rights, the text did remain seriously flawed, not by what it contained, but by what it didn’t. The West had paid a heavy price for its insistence on detoxification. There was no mention of discrimination, hostility and violence towards women, atheists, apostates, freethinkers and gays in the Islamic world, nor of chattel slavery in Africa, nor the historic slave trade that effectively depopulated vast tracts on North and East Africa for over 1000 years, nor any mention whatsoever of the scourge of untouchability affecting over 250 million people worldwide, including the 170 million Dalits of India.

The decision by the United States, Germany and several other western states to boycott the conference was a major success for the far right, anti-UN lobby, and led to almost total surrender of the conference to the Iranian president, the OIC and its allies. If Norway, alone among the western states, had not sent a ministerial level delegation to the conference Ahmadinejad would have had a clear run, virtually unopposed, and Bayefski’s prophecy – that the conference would become an anti-Israeli hate-fest – would have become self-fulfilling.

For those of us who defend the right of Israel to exist and deplore the fact that Israel is repeatedly singled out for condemnation in the Human Rights Council, the presence of our far-right “allies” has been a profound embarrassment.

In the event, only the Norwegian Foreign Minister stood up to the Iranian Hitler wannabe – and he wiped the floor with him. Amazingly despite the round-the-world coverage of Ahmadinejad’s speech, the demonstration by French Jewish students and the diplomatic walkout, there was almost no mention in the media of Norway’s brilliant riposte (Footnote). Other states, notably Denmark and Belgium gave strong replies to Ahmadinejad’s extremism, but three days later – when it was no longer news.

After waiting in the wings for two days, IHEU was finally called upon, both in the plenary and in front of the TV cameras, to comment on the successes and failures of the conference:

Durban Review Conference
20 – 24 April 2009, Palais des Nations, Geneva
Statement by the International Humanist and Ethical Union
Read by: Roy W Brown, IHEU Main Representative, UN Geneva: 24 April 2009

Thank you, Mr President

I am speaking on behalf of the International Humanist and Ethical Union with more than 100 member organisations in over 40 countries.

Mr President, the Durban Review Conference can claim some success in that the outcome document contains no toxic passages, and because some issues that have no place in human rights discourse have been eliminated. But sadly, and despite the magnificent efforts made by so many, the Conference will be seen by many more as a failure – a failure to offer hope to the hundreds of millions of our fellow humans suffering from racism every day of their lives.

On slavery, we have heard of the evils of trafficking, but not a single word of the more than one million people born into and living in chattel slavery in Africa. We have heard of the transatlantic slave trade, but not one word of the millions trafficked into slavery in North Africa, the Middle East and across the Indian Ocean – trades that persisted for over a thousand years and that left at least three people dead for every one of the tens of millions who actually reached the slave markets.

On state-sponsored racism – verging on genocide – there is not a single word about Darfur or other situations crying out for redress.

On religious hatred, we have heard only of discrimination and hatred towards Muslims, Christians and Jews, but what of the world-wide discrimination, violence and even death that awaits non-believers, sceptics, atheists, apostates and freethinkers in far too many countries, people whose only crime has been to think for themselves and to have been born in the wrong place?

Finally, Mr President, the world will want to know why the outcome document has totally ignored the most intractable form of racism on Earth, affecting more than 250 million people worldwide. I refer of course to the scourge of untouchability. How can any state here justify such blindness? I would add that IHEU will be continuing the fight for human rights with a World Conference on Untouchability to be held in London on 9 and 10 June this year.

Yes, Mr President, there has been progress, but the conference has been tainted by selectivity and bias. The international community must now move forward not only on what has been agreed here, but on what was omitted.

We urge all governments, the CERD, the High Commission, and the Human Rights Council to pick up on these neglected issues in the name of our common humanity – and of our concern for the human rights of all people.

Thank you sir.

Footnote: Extracts from the speech by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre

“I heard the messages in the [Iranian] President’s speech – and they amount to .. incitement of hatred, spreading politics of fear and promoting an indiscriminate message of intolerance…
“The Iranian President’s allegations run counter to the very spirit and dignity of this conference…
“Through his message the president has made Iran the odd man out. And Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective effort of the many…
“We who have made a point of defending freedom of expression cannot opt for non-attendance as a strategy, leaving the floor to precisely those who hold opposite views.
“We will not surrender the floor of the United Nations to the extremists.”

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