Groups Hope to Avoid 'Moral Leadership Vacuum' at UN Racism Meeting

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Expressing regret for the way a 2001 U.N anti-racism conference became a platform for racist and anti-Semitic attacks, non-governmental organizations in growing numbers are pledging to ensure that a follow-up planned for next year does not repeat the problem.

As of Tuesday, 95 human rights NGOs from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere had signed their names on a declaration rejecting hatred and incitement, and committing themselves to learning from the mistakes of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa.

The declaration was presented in Geneva Monday to a meeting of a U.N. preparatory committee planning next year's Durban Review Conference, which aims to evaluate progress made in combating racism since the WCAR.

Canada and Israel already have indicated that they will stay away from the 2009 event (which has been dubbed "Durban II" although it's looking increasingly likely that the venue will not be Durban but a U.N. city such as Geneva or New York.)

The U.S. government, also under pressure from some quarters to boycott Durban II, has not yet announced a final decision, although it has refused to participate in or fund the preparatory process.

In Sept. 2001, then Secretary of State Colin Powell withdrew an already downgraded U.S. delegation from the conference amid strong differences over draft texts, arguing that a conference condoning "hateful language" that "singles out Israel for abuse" could not be successful. Israel also pulled out.

But attendees say the atmosphere at an NGO Forum held in parallel to the official conference was even more poisonous, with pro-Israel speakers shouted down, pro-Palestinian groups circulating anti-Semitic caricatures and posters equating Israel with apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany. The forum voted to label Israel a racist state, accuse it of genocide, and call for it to be the target of mandatory sanctions.

The declaration signed by 95 NGOs this week said observers at the 2001 forum had been shocked by "the racist treatment including violence, exclusion, and intimidation against Jewish participants, and the misuse of human rights terminology in the document related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

"With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of groups was silent or refused to speak out," it said. "In the years since, many have reflected that the result was a regrettable vacuum of moral leadership."

The declaration was handed to the Geneva preparatory meeting by Tad Stahnke, representative of the international NGO Human Rights First.

"We must not allow another United Nations conference to become a platform for the anti-Semitic hatred that marred the 2001 conference," he said, adding that the tactics used in Durban had exacerbated the very prejudices the conference was supposed to confront.

The statement set out a series of "core principles" for U.N. member-states and NGOs.

"The global effort to eradicate racism cannot be advanced by branding whole peoples with a stigma of ultimate evil, fomenting hateful stereotyping in the name of human rights," it says.

The signatories also pledge to prevent a repeat of a situation in which hatred is incited against a group "in the guise of criticism of a particular government."

The two weeks of deliberations underway in Geneva brings together representatives of 20 governments chosen by the U.N. Human Rights Council to oversee the preparatory process.

Chaired by Libya, the grouping includes several other countries hostile to Israel or which traditionally side against Israel at U.N. forums, including Iran, Pakistan, Cuba, Russia and South Africa.

It was at preparatory meetings ahead of the 2001 conference where the texts that caused the difficulties in Durban were first drafted, and observers are closing watching the current preparations for indications of which direction the 2009 event may take.

"Islamophobia" did make an appearance in documents in Durban in 2001, but - together with the related issue of "defamation of Islam" - it s expected to feature far more prominently at the follow-up conference next year.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and its allies argue that this is a contemporary form of racism, exacerbated by the West's response to 9/11, that must be tackled by the international community, preferably by means of legal instruments that critics worry will limit free speech.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based NGO U.N. Watch, described the Durban II process as "an exercise whereby the world's most tolerant democracies - however flawed, the ones that have made the greatest progress in enacting protection for minorities - are accused of racism and discrimination by authoritarian regimes that in their very essence embody human rights violations, by systems of oppression that persecute their minorities as a matter of course."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow