Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

When hate states set the agenda

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An unprecedented public relations exercise is being waged by the UN to bolster support for its anti-racism conference in Geneva in April. The meeting is known as Durban II, after the location of the infamously racist anti-racism conference in South Africa in 2001.

The latest pitch, made on Thursday by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, takes the form of a rebuttal of editorials and articles in The Australian, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. It consists of a litany of complaints that reports on the UN meeting are plagued by distortions. But the attempted cover-up is as bad as the disease.

Human rights commissioner Navanethem Pillay, who will be the secretary-general of Durban II, has unleashed a wave of misinformation intended to whitewash UN-based anti-Semitism and the hijacking of the forum by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Her goal is to encourage Kevin Rudd, US president-elect Barack Obama and a few other Western leaders teetering on the edge of withdrawing to attend the conference.

Promoting anti-Semitism at the UN is not a new phenomenon, but the level of hatred given a global platform in Durban deeply disturbed participating Jewish organisations from across the world and the US and Israel, who ultimately left in disgust.

In the intervening seven years the UN turned the outcome of the conference - the Durban Declaration and Program of Action - into the centrepiece of its anti-racism program, intended to culminate in April's global redo.

The purpose of Durban II was formally adopted in August 2007 and first and foremost it is "to foster the implementation of the DDPA".

Therefore, even setting aside the new list of anti-democratic threats surrounding the conference, the legitimacy of Durban II turns on what is in that declaration: a claim that Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism.

This is the only country-specific accusation of racism in a document that purports to address racism and xenophobia across the world.

Pillay defends the accusation and its implementation at Durban II with the claim that "the contents of theDDPA were agreed by all the states present at the end of the 2001conference".

In fact, on the closing day, after the declaration had been adopted, Canada said: "The Canadian delegation registers its strongest objections and disassociates itself integrally from all text in this document directly or indirectly relating to the situation in the Middle East. We state emphatically that this text is ultra vires: it is outside the jurisdiction and mandate of this conference." Canada learned the hard way that participating - given that Western states did not and do not have the numbers to prevail - was counterproductive.

Every UN printing of the 2001 declaration omits the Canadian reservations, and every UN commentator repeats the fabrication that there was agreement on all of the declaration's contents. In January this year Canada was the first country to declare it had no intention of being duped twice by attending Durban II.

In all UN negotiations involving Arab and Muslim states, the starting point is hysterical anti-Israel language. The EU then walks back to a "middle ground", characterised by condemnations - still directed at Israel and no other state - that by comparison are heralded as an improvement. The insidious EU-Islamic deal at Durban I was the trade-off that permitted a condemnation of anti-Semitism and a nod to the Holocaust in exchange for including a condemnation of racist Israel.

This formula professes a concern with killing Jews 60 years ago while fostering the anti-Semitism that kills Jewish Israelis now. Pillay says the criticism of the declaration's singling out of Israel is trivial: "It takes a vivid imagination to turn it into the manifesto of a 'hate-fest'," she says. Apparently terrorist attacks on Israelis launched in the name of a struggle to defeat the racist Jewish state don't fire Pillay's imagination.

Pillay, a South African who grew up under apartheid, may have an inkling of the nexus between the allegation of racism and the politics of sanctions, isolation and political defeat.

Certainly, General Assembly president Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann does. Last month he said Israeli policies amounted to apartheid and "must be outlawed" and met by a "campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel". Sounds like a hate-fest to me.

The high commissioner also presents a series of alleged distortions she attempts to debunk. It is not true, she claims, that the Libyan chairwoman of the preparatory committee Najat al-Hajjaji has significant executive power and is using it. Says Pillay: "Chairpersons of bodies of this type fulfil an essentially functional role and are not in a position to push their own country's agenda."

In fact, I took part in the two substantive meetings of the preparatory committee for Durban II and attempted to speak about anti-Semitism and the demonisation of Israel. In an unprecedented use of the chair's power, Hajjaji interrupted me four times on the grounds the subject matter was irrelevant. Together with the Iranian delegation, she concocted a series of delays preventing the participation of a Jewish and pro-Israel non-governmental organisation at the first session.

Not only has the chair pushed her agenda throughout, her very appointment is a travesty. Choosing Libya, a country that leading Arab experts decry as having "no written constitution, no political parties and no non-governmental organisations", to steer preparations for a human rights conference is an outrage. Pillay claims that "some condemnatory language on Israel" is not part of a draft declaration but merely part of a background compilation. In fact, the language, which accuses Israel of apartheid, genocide and crimes against humanity, is entitled Draft Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference.

Pillay takes umbrage over criticism of the membership of the executive committee charged with planning Durban II.

Beyond the Libyan chairwoman, the job has been entrusted to Cuba as the rapporteur, Iran a vice-chair and other human rights stalwarts such as Russia and Pakistan. No problem, says Pillay, Western and democratic governments are also members and their "votes and views have equal weight". Nowhere does the high commissioner actually object to Iran - a state whose President has openly advocated genocide - being a vice-chair of an anti-racism conference.

Durban II represents a hijacking by Islamic states of the UN's human rights agenda. In addition to demonising Israel, the draft outcome document has eight condemnations of Islamophobia, four more worries about Islam, 12 about Muslims, 11 criticisms of the defamation of religions (that is, Islam), along with a few phrases such as "Calls upon states to pay attention to the serious nature of incitement to religious hatred such as anti-Semitism, Christianophobia and, more particularly, Islamophobia."

Finally, Pillay is livid about any suggestion of a linkage between hate and terrorism. The Forbes article says Durban II is "a vehicle for the kind of hate that leads to such horrors as the slaughter in Mumbai or, for that matter, 9/11." Having witnessed Durban I and 9/11, I couldn't agree more. Terrorists are enabled when the villains are encouraged to believe they are the victims.

Pillay worries about "efforts to derail" Durban II. People who care about human rights and preventing racism should worry if it isn't.

This article first appeared in The Australian.