Al-Ahram Weekly Online
9 - 15 August 2001
Issue No.546
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Reading between the brackets

The Western world does not view Israeli actions against the Palestinians as a form of racism. Dina Ezzat reports on preparations for a UN conference against racism

The last preparatory meetings for the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) are scheduled to close tomorrow in Geneva amid expectations that statements linking Zionism to racism, suggested for the conference declaration and programme of action, will be removed.

Already placed within brackets, these statements are expected to be replaced by other statements referring to violations of the rights of Palestinians.

The brackets, and many others that punctuate both the programme of action and the final declaration, are likely to be removed ahead of the opening of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance on 31 August in Durban, South Africa.

By 7 September, the date the Durban conference concludes, the participating UN members will need to reach a consensus on a course of action to put an end to racism and compensate its victims, which will then be presented for universal adoption.

The Geneva meetings had opened on 30 July against the backdrop of an international debate over the extent to which the Durban Declaration and programme of action should focus on the Palestinian issue, particularly in relation to Zionism. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which is coordinating conference preparations, was clearly concerned with this debate. Particularly alarming was the US threat to boycott the conference should the draft documents include allusions that could be interpreted in any way as equating Zionism with racism. In her address to the preparatory meetings earlier this week, Mary Robinson, WCAR secretary- general and UN high commissioner for human rights, said that regional political conflicts should not be imposed on the agenda of the conference.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa clarified the Arab position. "Israel's racist actions against the Palestinian people have to be dealt with in an international conference that aims to eradicate racism. Arab countries are not expecting the Durban conference to be a venue for dealing with the Arab- Israeli peace process, but they certainly expect that the Israeli racist practices against the Palestinian people will not be overlooked."

In any case, Arab delegates in Geneva were not insistent on including language that equates Zionism with racism in either the Durban Declaration or programme of action. Contrary to what has been suggested, they were not trying to revive General Assembly resolution no. 3379 which stated that "Zionism was a form of racism," issued in 1975 and annulled in 1991. Rather, they wanted to underline the fact that Israel is committing racist actions against Palestinians.

"What we ask of this conference is to deal with the matter in the serious manner it deserves," commented Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. Informed sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that like most other Arab capitals, Cairo is aware that the US threat to boycott the conference is bound to influence the drafting process; therefore, it would not be practical to insist on any harsh language condemning Israel or equating the suffering of holocaust victims with that of the Palestinians. "Except for Syria, no Arab state insisted on any language linking Israel to racist practices," one Geneva-based Arab diplomat told the Weekly.

The documents presented to the Geneva meetings 10 days ago comprised six bracketed paragraphs dealing with "Zionist racist practices." These included an appeal for Israel "to revise its legislation based on racial or religious discrimination such as the law of return and all the policies of an occupying power which prevent the Palestinian refugees and displaced persons from returning to their homes and properties." They also included an explicit reference to Israeli racism, suggesting the need "to bring the foreign occupation of Jerusalem by Israel together with all its racist practices to an end."

But in the course of the 10 days, most of these phrases were either removed or toned down. Among the phrases removed was a bracketed mention of "holocausts" suffered by other peoples. That reference was seen as an affront to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Nazi holocaust.

"The Americans made it very clear that they do not want any direct or indirect linkage between Zionism and racism... Any racist practices of Zionism are not to be included," commented one Arab diplomat close to the preparatory meetings. According to this diplomat, the Americans are not alone in their stance; they have been joined by the Australians, the Canadians and some European countries.

South Africa, the host of the conference, also has its reservations. The South African permanent representative to UN organisations in Geneva reportedly told Arab and Muslim countries that they have to offer the preparatory meetings alternative language that could describe the current situation in the occupied territories without getting into controversial phrases such as "ethnic cleansing practices against Palestinians."

Diplomatic sources argue that the language that will most likely go from Geneva to Durban will be statements such as "the practices of occupying powers" and "the massacres perpetuated against the Palestinians since 1948," with no accompanying reference to Israel. And, according to the sources, there is no guarantee that even this accommodating language will be endorsed by Washington. If disagreement persists, the Durban conference could opt to vote on the bracketed language.

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