Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 March 2009
Issue No. 939
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Israel's right not to be criticised

How serious can the international community's commitment to eliminating racism be taken when it succumbs to Israeli pressure to boycott the Durban II conference, asks Amira Howeidy

Fresh from its bloody war on Gaza, Israel is actively pressuring the international community to boycott the Durban Review Conference due to convene in Geneva, Switzerland between 20 and 24 April to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) that was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UNHRC) has been mandated by the UN General Assembly to convene the event and press "towards the effective and comprehensive implementation" of the conclusions and recommendations of the WCAR, continuing the "global drive for the total elimination of racism". While little or no progress has been achieved in eradicating racism since the much-hyped Durban conference next month's event has nonetheless provoked an increasingly bitter political battle.

Even before a draft of the April conference's closing statement was complete, and some five months before the event, Israel announced it would boycott it out of fear participants would be critical of Tel Aviv. Canada, then Italy, followed suit, and for the same reasons. In a surprise move by the Barack Obama administration, a decision to participate in planning the conference in mid-February was reversed less than two weeks later, with objections to the draft statement being cited as the reason. On 12 March Australia threatened to withdraw from the conference unless what it called the "anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic harangue" of the draft's closing statement was removed. The Netherlands and France haven't issued any threats yet, but have been critical of the draft. And on Monday Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said EU foreign ministers were sceptical about "the directions of the papers prepared" in Geneva. Schwarzenberg said that there is "strong [EU] will to withdraw" from the conference unless the wording of the statement is amended.

The controversial draft statement says that Israel's policy in the occupied Palestinian territories constitutes a "violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid". It describes Israeli policy as "a serious threat to international peace and security" and in violation of "the basic principles of international human rights law".

The draft also expresses "deep concern" over Israel's "racial discrimination against the Palestinian people as well as Syrian nationals of the occupied Syrian Golan and other inhabitants of the Arab occupied territories". Israel, it says, is implementing collective punishment against the Palestinian people, as well as "torture, economic blockade, severe restriction of movement and arbitrary closure of their territories".

Israel is charged with perpetrating "a foreign occupation founded on settlements, laws based on racial discrimination with the aim of continuing domination of the occupied territories". Finally, the draft calls on the international community to protect the Palestinian people against Israel's "racist" policies.

It is no wonder that Israel and pro-Israeli groups are livid. Their defence has been to attack the draft statement and the conference itself as an occasion to "single out Israel". They claim Israel is innocent of all the charges, and that they are contained in the draft only at the insistence of Arab and Islamic countries. The plaint is familiar. To criticise Israel means to court charges of anti-Semitism. Then to further demonise the anti-Semites, Israel, pro-Israeli and some Western states and groups calling for a boycott of the conference have gone on to suggest that the Arab-Islamic bloc wants to stifle freedom of expression by lobbying for wording that equates criticism of religious faith with a violation of human rights.

To push the point home, Durban II's critics stress that Libya has been elected as chair of the conference's preparatory committee, Cuba its vice-chair, while Iran is a member of the organising committee.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, puts it bluntly: "Surely no good can result from a conference where countries such as Libya, Iran, Pakistan and Syria are dictating the agenda."

In other words, these states should be excluded from the UN so there is no danger of them being elected to supervise an event that's not controlled by Israel and cannot be vetoed by Washington. This is the crux of the hysterical reactions to the Geneva conference: it's an event that treats all UN members as equal, unlike the real world where double standards are honoured.

Israel was stung by the 2001 Durban conference. Despite successful pressure to remove any reference to Israel from the official closing statement, the international NGO forum could not be so easily tamed. It issued a strongly worded declaration that equated Zionism with racism. It also described Israel's occupation of Palestinian land as "Israel's brand of Apartheid" and accused Israel of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was perhaps the loudest criticism so far by the international community of Israeli practices against the Palestinians. As such it was attacked by Western governments, and the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, as anti-Semitic.

With this recent history in mind Israel and pro-Israeli lobby groups are smearing the follow-up conference as a gathering of terrorist sympathisers.

Threats by European governments to boycott the event have created an environment very different from the run up to the 2001 Durban conference, says Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights which was active in creating the Arab caucus that participated in Durban NGO forum.

"There was more sympathy with the Palestinian question and the Intifada back then," he says. "Then 11 September happened and a lot of that sympathy was lost."

Global demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians during Israel's 22-day war on Gaza earlier this year might suggest that public opinion is shifting once again. Certainly Israel is suffering a serious image problem after Amnesty international and the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused it of committing war crimes in Gaza.

The Israeli army killed 1,440 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, 400 of them children. It destroyed Gaza's infrastructure and used white phosphorous shells in densely populated areas.

The Durban II draft closing statement will most likely end up a watered down version of the 2001 statement. There will be no mention of Israeli atrocities in the occupied territories, no mention of the white phosphorous that melted flesh and charred bones, since to describe what happened, and what is happening, is deemed anti-Semitic.

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