The U.N. anti-racism conference in Geneva adopted a consensus resolution yesterday that demands action against racism and xenophobia. The resolution is not without controversy, however, and this rather lengthy post is meant to serve as a review of some of the key issues surrounding the controversy that developed it. First, a little history.
U.N. Declares Freedom from Racism a Fundamental Human Right
The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed in 1948 largely due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured here holding a copy of the declaration, image in the public domain from Wikimedia), includes in it language that reads:
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (Article 2).
That commitment to human rights in general, and racial equality in particular led to a series of conferences sponsored by the U.N. on racism, the third of which was the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa. This conference is widely referred to by the shorthand “Durban,” or the “Durban Racism Conference.” That first conference was intensely controversial for the kind of extreme antisemitism it attracted, as the Christian Science Monitor recounts in a recent article:
Some pro-Palestinian supporters passed out fliers containing a photograph of Hitler captioned, “What if I had won? There would be no Israel and no Palestinian bloodshed.” Thousands of NGO delegates approved a document that branded Israel guilty of genocide, apartheid, and other war crimes.Then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson found the forum recommendations so toxic she refused to “forward” them on to the governments.
Yet, as the CSM goes on to point out, often forgotten is the fact that the gathered diplomats stripped out the most incendiary anti-Israel language even though it did make reference to “the plight of the Palestinian people,” a reference which many objected to as anti-Israel if not a veiled antisemitic attack.
Antisemitism & Racism: Disaster from Disaster
Given this context of overt and extreme antisemitism at the first Durban conference, the second conference had a lot of disadvantages at the start. The second conference, known as the Durban Review Conference (April 20-24, 2009), is still in process and yet many have already declared it a “disaster,” such as
“There has only ever been one United Nations conference on racism before and it ended in disaster. The second begins in it.”
Part of what prompts Ms. Philp to call the Durban Review “a disaster from disaster” is the extensive boycott by many of the invited nations, led by the U.S.:
“The boycott, begun by the United States and Israel, has snowballed so far across the Western world that any official international consensus on dealing with racism and xenophobia now looks near pointless. “
It’s true that the U.S. has led the way in undermining the Durban Review conference, and to the extent that this has been about taking a stand against antisemitism this is a very good thing.
In fact, the U.S. deciding to boycott the Durban Review was responding to the 2001 Durban resolution. Here’s the CSM article again on this issue:
“In a statement released Saturday, the US State Department cited the 2001 Durban text in explaining its withdrawal from this conference. That document “singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” it said. And since the draft document for this meeting is based on the previous meeting’s, the US could not participate.”
And, as if there needed to be any more confirmation of the overt antisemitic intentions of some of the key players involved at the Durban Review, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech that was more a hate-filled screed than a stand against racism. Clearly, what Ahmadinejad and other hate-mongers have done is seize upon this opportunity to fight racism in order to advance their antisemitic, (not to mention homophobic – but that’s another post -) and hate-filled agenda. You can begin to see why some would call this conference a “disaster,” but I’m not quite ready to write it off.
Protesting & Monitoring the Geneva Conference
Fortunately, Ahmadinejad’s intolerance did not go without protest and a number of world leaders, as well as NGOs and unaffiliated citizens, walked out of his speech (image of unidentified protesters in Geneva courtesy of DurbanReview).
In addition to the protests, some people have been closely monitoring the Geneva Conference. For example, Andre Oboler launched on a news service April 2nd 2009 about the conference called DurbanReview (http://www.durbanreview.org/). Durban Review is a volunteer project supported by a number of NGOs with people on the ground in Geneva and Oboler coordinating information and news gathering several time zones away in Australia.
One of the useful bits at DurbanReview is the piece on the sponsoring nations, aka “string pullers,” and Gregg Rickman’s piece on what’s problematic about this roster.
Hope for a Stand Against Racism and Antisemitism?
As Matt notes, the conference started on Hitler’s birthday – certainly a bit of inauspicious scheduling on someone’s part – and yet he writes that despite that he’s heartened by the protests to antisemitism:
If people and nations are unwilling to accept antisemitism, there might be a chance to keep it from spreading. Perhaps the antisemites of the world will be radicalized, but if enough nations are willing, we can deal with that.
I agree, I do think there’s hope in that. And, I think that the example of being at the conference, and thus, being able to walk out on Ahmadinejad’s speech is more powerful than not attending the conference altogether. As Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, points out:
Nations that attended this conference in good faith proved that it’s possible to reaffirm the global commitment to fight racism, despite efforts to derail the process. The adoption of this document by consensus only a day after Ahmadinejad’s divisive speech is a clear message against intolerance.
To me, part of the real disaster here is that the extremists like Ahmadinejad have given the West, and particularly the U.S., a very good excuse to stay away from the conference and to continue the pattern of not participating in the global fight to combat racism. Perhaps foolishly, I remain ever hopeful that this can change and the U.S. can, eventually, step up and do the right thing when it comes to fighting racism not just here but around the world. And, the Geneva Conference still provides such an opportunity.
Following the passing of the resolution, de Rivero called for the governments that boycotted the UN racism conference to now endorse the conference declaration and thereby demonstrate their commitment to fight racism. If the U.S. wants to stand against antisemitism and racism, it will heed this call and endorse the conference declaration.
Updated: You can download the Durban Review Conference Outcome Document here (.PDF).