|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
If international humanitarian law applies anywhere, it is in the occupied Palestinian territories. Why, then, is it not being respected? In Geneva, Dina Ezzat examines Israeli violations, and the efforts being made to mitigate the most pernicious effects of an intolerable occupation
A monopoly on victimisationAn international conference against racism could run aground over Israel's insistence on denying the Palestinians equality
The week-long World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa starting 31 August. Preparations, however, have been far from smooth.
Sixteen preparatory regional and international meetings have already been held, but Al-Ahram Weekly has learned that considerable chunks of what is supposed to be the Durban Declaration are still "between brackets." In the terminology of international conferences, this means that no agreement has been reached on the desired outcome of this international conference, to be held under UN auspices.
"The most problematic part has to do with Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories," a Geneva-based Arab diplomat told the Weekly. He explained: "While Israel, the US and other allies insist that the final Durban document should include a clear expression of regret for the fate of the Jews in Europe during World War II, these countries refuse to acknowledge that this was not the only holocaust." Many countries, including the Arab group, are not prepared to accept such restrictions. "To start with, the World War II disaster was not exclusive to the Jews; others suffered as well. And second of all, since World War II there have been other similar if not identical disasters," said the diplomat. He added: "The Palestinians have certainly been suffering."
Moreover, Israel, the US and other countries refuse to include any reference to Zionism as a cause of racial discrimination. "Of course, the UN cancelled a previous resolution equating Zionism with racism. Today, we are not saying that we want to pass this resolution, but the international community cannot be allowed to claim that it is moving to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination while ignoring the obvious manifestations of racism and related intolerance to which the Palestinians in the occupied territories are subjected as a result of Zionism," another Geneva-based Arab diplomat told the Weekly.
According to this source, the Arab group is insisting that the Durban Declaration include clear references to the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories as the result of racism and xenophobia. The document should call for the elimination of these forms of discrimination, and stipulate compensation for their victims.
Clearly, Israel, the US and their allies in the international community are not willing to accept such statements. As a result, no agreement on the declaration's wording has been reached. In the meantime, the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights is planning for another round of the preparatory process in Geneva this month, in a bid to reduce the brackets substantially. Otherwise, an informed diplomatic source told the Weekly, "the convocation of the conference may be well at risk."
The UN General Assembly decided to hold the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in 1997. "This world conference has the potential to be among the most significant gatherings at the start of this century," commented Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the conference's secretary-general.
Diplomatic sources in Geneva who know Robinson well say she is sympathetic to the Arab group's point of view on the Palestinian issue. In the words of one diplomat, however, "Robinson suffered much criticism and pressure after she issued a report a few months ago that criticised Israel for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the occupied territories. This could have cost her her job, if it had not been for the support of the French president. Now she is trying to be careful."
Robinson was not available for comment; nor was her office prepared to clarify matters.
The UN Commission on Human Rights is not the only party that must work hard to resolve such disagreements before they develop into major obstacles. South Africa, the host, also has to worry about this conference, mooted to the UN upon an initiative from the African group. South African diplomats recognised that there is a problem with the Palestinian- Israeli issue. They say that they are trying everything possible to encourage a compromise.
Pretoria is in a potentially sticky situation. On one hand, South Africa has close economic ties with Israel. On the other, given its long fight against apartheid, South Africa has an international moral obligation to oppose injustice.
In Cairo last May to invite Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa to the conference, South African Foreign Minister Dlamini- Zuma admitted that the situation the Israeli occupation forces have created in the occupied territories amounts to apartheid. "Yes. I would say it is a form of apartheid. Although it is not identical to what happened in South Africa, there are similarities that cannot be ignored," Dlamini-Zuma said.
Still, a provisional agenda for the conference has been approved: discussions will touch upon the sources and contemporary manifestations of racism and its victims; measures to prevent and eradicate racism at the national, regional and international levels; and the role of the UN and other international mechanisms in combating racism, xenophobia, racial discrimination and related intolerance.
In 1973, the UN General Assembly earmarked the following three decades for action to combat racism and racial discrimination and to support peoples struggling to achieve racial equality. Today, it does not seem that the Palestinians have gained much from this international 30-year battle for "equality, justice, and dignity." Nor is it clear just what they can expect of the conference against racism.
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