As UN’s ‘Durban III’ Looms, Countries Mull Boycotts and Critics Plan Counter-Conference

By Patrick Goodenough | September 2, 2011 | 12:33 AM EDT

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, addressing with Durban II conference in Geneva on Monday, April 20, 2009, calls Israel the world’s “most cruel and racist regime.” (AP Photo)

( – As the small number of Western democracies intending to boycott the third United Nations’ “Durban” racism event this month slowly grows, plans are coming together for a simultaneous “counter” conference expected to slam the U.N. gathering.

The line-up of speakers at the event, to be held at a hotel near U.N. headquarters on Sept. 22, includes Nobel peace prize laureate Elie Wiesel, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold.

The government of Canada, the first country to announce its decision not to attend the U.N. meeting known as “Durban III,” will be represented at the counter conference by a cabinet member, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney.

Previous events in the Durban process have been marred by anti-Israel rhetoric. Adding to the controversy this time round was the U.N.’s decision to hold the conference in New York City, just days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Marking the tenth anniversary of Durban I – the Aug. 31-Sept. 8, 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa – Durban III has been timed to coincide with the high-level opening of the General Assembly’s annual session, in a bid to ensure that as many world leaders already in town for that event participate.

Among those likely to do so is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has attended the General Assembly opening every year since taken office in 2005.

The last event in the Durban process, Durban II in Geneva in 2009, featured a provocative speech by Ahmadinejad who attacked Israel and claimed that the Holocaust was a “pretext” for the establishment of the Jewish state.

The U.S. and nine other Western countries boycotted Durban II, and more than 20 European delegations walked out to protest Ahmadinejad’s speech.

Canada, which was also first to announce it was boycotting Durban II, said early on that it would not attend Durban III either, making the announcement last November, two days after a U.N. committee voted for a resolution on holding the Sept. 22 event.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers then urged the Obama administration to follow Canada’s lead quickly. The State Department announced its decision in June.

The other countries that have said publicly they will not attend are Israel, Australia and four European Union countries – the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria.

Can Durban III be fixed?

Fifteen other nations voted against the General Assembly’s Durban III resolution late last year but have yet to announce whether or not they will participate in this month’s event. They are Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden.

According to that December resolution, Durban III aims to adopt “a short and concise political declaration aimed at mobilizing political will at the national, regional and international levels for the full and effective implementation of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action.”

The DDPA, adopted in Durban in 2001, is at the center of the controversy. It provocatively identified “Palestinian people under foreign occupation” as victims of racism, in line with the international campaign to label Israel an “apartheid” state. No country other than Israel was similarly targeted.

Israel and Italy were among 10 Western countries that boycotted the Durban II racism conference in Geneva in 2009. (AP Photo)

Countries that stayed away from Durban II based their stance on the atmosphere that pervaded Durban I – and, crucially, on the fact that the 2009 Geneva event embraced the DDPA.

As the main purpose of Durban III is, once again, to promote the DDPA, it is unlikely that negotiations underway in New York in the run-up to the conference will make any difference in the view of critics of the process.

Nonetheless, some of the 15 countries that voted against the resolution in December but have yet to say whether or not they will participate are holding off on announcing a decision, pending the outcome of those negotiations.

They include Latvia, whose foreign ministry spokesman Janis Silis said in response to queries Thursday that Latvia was “strongly committed to fight racism and intolerance” and believed the event should “keep the focus on principal objective and should not be politicized.”

A Romanian foreign ministry spokesman said Romania too had not taken a final decision, pending the results of talks in New York on the final text. It was involved in the negotiations with the aim of positively influencing the outcome.

Romania believed that the process should “avoid the focus on specific geographical situations leading to unwanted and counterproductive politicization,” he said.

Lithuania‘s foreign ministry said the Baltic state would take part, represented at a “working level.”  Other foreign ministries’ responses to queries on Durban III attendance are awaited.

The day-long counter conference is being organized by leading U.N. critic Anne Bayefsky, director of the Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust at Touro College and editor of the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project.

“10 Years Ago the U.N. Durban Declaration charged Israel – and only Israel – with racism,” the invitation reads. “10 Years Ago the U.N. Durban conference legitimized hate speech on a global scale. 10 Years Ago on September 11th the enemies of democracy attacked the friends of freedom. 10 Years have passed and the U.N. will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Durban

in New York City - in the shadow of America's grief. 10 Long Years and the voices of intolerance that drive terrorism are louder than ever.”

Other speakers include actor Jon Voight, former NYC mayor Ed Koch, Princeton University professor emeritus Bernard Lewis, Harvard professors Alan Dershowitz and Ruth Wisse, Sudanese human rights activist Simon Deng, Syrian-born critic of Islam Wafa Sultan – named in 2006 as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people – American Islamic Forum for Democracy president Zuhdi Jasser and Bayefsky.

A coalition of human rights groups will also hold an event in New York coinciding with Durban III, aimed at highlighting some of the cases of human rights violation that are frequently ignored by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.

The Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution will gather dissidents and human rights activists from countries including China, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran. They include Yang Jianli, a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

A keynote address will be given by Mariane Pearl, author and women’s rights advocate, and widow of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl

According to the organizers the conference will produce and present to world leaders draft U.N. resolutions on governments that abuse human rights through policies of genocide, torture, discrimination and repression.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow