UN Anti-Racism Conference Hijacked
Diana Ralph

Navi Pillay (UNHCR) and Ban Ki-Moon (UN Secretary General) in Geneva. Pillay lamented that “A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance.” Photo: Peter Kenny/ENI, www.eni.ch

Quiz: Was the Durban Review Conference  (held April 20-24, 2009) (a) an inspiring conference to follow-through on the 2001 commitment by over 150 nations (except Israel and the US) to end racism in all its forms or (b) an “anti-Semitic hate fest”? The correct answer is (a). But after the sophisticated campaign of disinformation launched by the pro-Israel lobby it would be understandable if you answered (b).

As Nelson Mandela declared on the opening day of the Review, “the Sept. 2001 Conference against Racism held in Durban (and the resultant Durban Declaration and Programme of Action [DDPA]) has been hailed as the most comprehensive framework of its kind to combat racism, xenophobia and all other forms of discrimination.” The DDPA roundly condemned a wide variety of racist practices in many countries, including discrimination against African-descendants, indigenous people, the Dalit, migrants, refugees, victims of human trafficking, the Roma, people of Asian descent, national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, victims of sexual violence, and homosexuals. Its recommendations included reparations for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and for actions to end world poverty, war, and inequality. It recognizes the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis to security and international law.

The Durban Review Conference was designed to hold the world’s nations to account for implementing the DDPA recommendations. In the eight years since the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), many African, Asian, and Latin American countries worked hard to implement the DDPA.

But Israel and Western powers, with vested interests in protecting privilege and inequality, instead waged a relentless campaign to destroy the Durban Review. Their campaign included:

•  Propaganda to label the 2001 Durban WCAR as anti-Semitic. Although there is nothing anti-Semitic in the DDPA, they exploited isolated incidents during the NGO pre-conference to write off the entire WCAR as anti-Semitic.

•  Threats and intimidation to prevent the UN and charitable foundations from funding NGOs to get to the Durban Review.

•  Heavy pressure to erase any mention of Israel/Palestine, Islamophobia, or slavery reparations in the Durban Review document. The Review document was cleansed of almost all its specific content, especially mention of Palestine, Islamophobia, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, shrinking from over 60 pages to 17.

• Pressure on Western countries to boycott the Durban Review or to work inside it to prevent anything controversial from being addressed.

The Pro-Israel Lobby’s Campaign to spin the anti-Semitism “Story”
In spite of all this pressure, over 150 countries supported the Durban Review. Canada and Israel were the only countries boycotting until a week before the conference (in the end 10 countries, including the US boycotted).

With the controversial wording erased from the Review document, the pro-Israel lobby had nothing to attack as evidence of anti-Semitism. Undeterred by this problem, the International Jewish Caucus launched a multi-million dollar campaign to portray the Durban Review as “an anti-Semitic hate fest.” The IJC waged a massive assault inside and outside of the UN to disrupt and discredit the Durban Review. Many other pro-Israel lobby organizations also joined the attack, including the World Zionist Congress, UN Watch, the Magenta Foundation, Human Rights First, and the Hudson Institute.

Planned with military precision reminiscent of Israel’s Gaza massacre, their campaign included:

•  Holding large anti-UN demonstrations outside the UN on three of the five days of the Durban Review Conference. They claimed that the Review was anti-Semitic because it opened on April 20, Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day. That date is only celebrated in Israel. In 2005, the UN designated January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

•  Flying in over 1,000 pro-Israel lobby delegates to disrupt the Review. They overwhelmed the 350 world-wide NGO delegates, targeted UN staff and national delegates, and disrupted events including raucous demonstrators wearing clown wigs and noses.

•  Holding many Pro-Israel side-events at the UN with high-profile speakers like Irwin Cotler, Alan Dershowitz, and Natan Sharansky who attacked the UN and Palestinians and defended Israeli war crimes in the Occupied Territories and Gaza. Caving to pro-Israel lobby pressure, the UN forbade Palestinian rights groups from holding any side events at the UN.

Ahmadinejad’s Speech:  “Proof” of Anti-Semitism
The pro-Israel delegates (and media) pounced on the April 20 speech by Iran’s President, Ahmed Ahmadinejad as “proof” that the Review was anti-Semitic. Whatever Ahmadinejad’s personal views, this particular speech, while highly critical of Israel and Western imperial powers, was NOT the anti-Semitic, Holocaust denying diatribe that the media claimed it was. You can hear it for yourself at the Jewish Voices for Peace’s Muzzlewatch website  (www.muzzlewatch.com: May 12, 2009 posting).

Ahmadinejad’s views also do not represent those of the Durban Review. UN rules require that heads of state be allowed to speak. The High Commissioner succeeded somewhat in toning down his speech, but she had to give him the podium. If Obama had chosen to attend the Durban Review, he too would have had an opportunity to present a different viewpoint. But because of the pro-Israel lobby’s smear campaign, no other heads of state attended. Ahmadinejad’s 34 minute speech was only a tiny side-show to the week-long Review, which included powerful panels, eloquent speeches, and the inspiring vision of over 150 countries working to end racism. But nothing else made the news.

Committing to “end racism in all its forms”

The pro-Israel campaign caused extensive damage. But it deeply offended most of the national and NGO participants who united to protect the commitment to the principles of the DDPA in the Review document. We left with a renewed commitment to ending racism.

Shortly before Ahmadinejad's speech, Nelson Mandela’s spokesperson delivered his powerful, ethical message supporting the Durban Review, urging respect for diversity of opinions, and calling on nations to end racism. Mandela ended with this poignant appeal: “Let us always remember that the victims of this phenomenon are children, men, women, in their millions. Do not allow their dignity, their human rights to live in peace and prosperity to be compromised because of the often obscure differences among policymakers. It is in your hands to make a difference."


Diana Ralph is a founder and Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices (Canada). She represented IJV at the Durban Review conference.