Diplomats Make End Run With Early Ratification of Final Durban Document

GENEVA (JTA)—Durban II reached its conclusion, it seemed, three days early.

A day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tirade against Israel triggered a walkout by the European delegation and generated headlines around the world, diplomats at the U.N. forum scrambled to ratify the conference’s final document on Tuesday—three days before the parley’s close, when the document was scheduled to be adopted.

It was not immediately clear whether the move was meant to head off further debate over the text or to prevent additional walkouts by delegations in protest.

The document ratified by delegates includes the item that prompted Israel and half a dozen other countries to boycott the conference: reaffirmation of the 2001 Durban document, which singles out Israel, brands it a racist country and cites the Palestinians as victims of racism.

“Clearly they were panicking and had to get a quick victory before the text could spiral even further out of control,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, said of the delegates’ vote. “Of course, the text is unacceptable because it still ratifies the flawed 2001 text.”

Despite the document’s early ratification, the very public walkout by EU delegates during Ahmadinejad’s speech and the events surrounding the conference guaranteed that Durban II would not be a reprise of the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Pro-Palestinian elements hijacked the original event in Durban, South Africa, and turned it into an anti-Israel free-for-all.

Geneva has had some similarities with Durban.

In 2001, the conference provided a platform for a polarizing leader from the developing world to rebuke Western nations: Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who was greeted enthusiastically by thousands of activists at the NGO Forum that preceded the conference. This time it was Ahmadinejad, the only head of state to address the conference, who called Israel a “racist government.”

But whereas the Durban conference was chaotic, noisy advocacy in Geneva was banned from U.N. grounds and activists were restricted to a few minutes per day to address its follow-up.

And whereas critics of Israel in 2001 went largely unanswered or drowned out pro-Israel voices, Ahmadinejad’s speech was met by denunciations in the media, including a rare rebuke by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. And after Ahmadinejad relinquished the podium, the very next speaker, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, called the Iranian president’s speech “incitement to hatred, spreading politics of fear and promoting an indiscriminate message of intolerance.”

For their part, pro-Israel protesters went on the offensive, interrupting Ahmadinejad’s speech and providing context to the Israel-focused tone of the conference with their own news conferences, demonstrations and Holocaust commemorations—the conference coincided with Yom Hashoah—in Geneva and beyond.

While the singling-out of Israel surprised delegates at the 2001 conference, Israel’s allies worked hard in the months leading up to Geneva to ensure it did not devolve into a repeat of Durban.

To some extent, then, the document’s early adoption Tuesday could be considered a defeat.

The document had been the center of diplomatic activity in the weeks leading up to the conference in Geneva, which was supposed to evaluate progress toward the goals set by the 2001 event.

Diplomats worked late last Friday to hammer out details of the final draft of the document, in part to avoid threats of boycott by countries concerned about its implicit branding of Israel as a racist state. In the end, the changes were insufficient to satisfy concerns by the United States, Australia, Germany and a few other countries, which announced they would not attend the conference. Most European countries, however, did not pull out.

In theory, the document could have been debated and changed at the conference itself, for better or for worse. Indeed, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference called for “open discussion on all issues” at the conference. But any such possibility ended when the draft document was ratified Tuesday with no additional changes.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told reporters the original scheduled adoption date of April 24 was “just in case the main committee needed that much time—just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised.”

“None of that happened,” she said.

Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of states to combat racism and “highlights the suffering of many groups.”

B’nai B’rith denounced the document’s ratification, calling it “flawed and offensive” and blaming Libya for engineering its early and swift passage.

“We condemn this rubber stamp document in the strongest terms possible,” Richard Heideman, the head of the B’nai B’rith Delegation in Geneva, said. “The adoption of this document shows nothing has changed since 2001, no lessons have been learned.”

Though the document was adopted by consensus, it was tainted by the boycott of 10 nations, including the Czech Republic, whose delegates walked out in protest during Ahmadinejad’s speech and never returned to the conference. Along with the United States, Australia and Germany, the other boycotting countries included Canada, New Zealand, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland.

The extent of the boycott was cheered by Jewish and pro-Israel groups, which sought to discredit the Geneva proceedings.

After Monday’s theatrics and Tuesday’s ratification, the remainder of the conference was expected to be taken up by NGO activists criticizing the deprivation of human rights for various peoples, including the Palestinians.

A statement by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior

The following is excerpted from a statement by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, read Monday at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, by Ambassador Mordecai Yedid, the head of the Israeli delegation.

Madame Chairperson,

Why, when the world was created, did God create just one man, Adam, and one woman, Eve? The Rabbis answered: so that all humankind would come from a single union, to teach us that we are all brothers and sisters.

This Conference was dedicated to that simple proposition. We, all of us, have a common lineage, and are all, irrespective of race, religion or gender, created in the divine image. Indeed, this single idea, unknown to all other ancient civilizations, may be the greatest gift that the Jewish people has given to the world, the recognition of the equality and dignity of every human being. The foremost right that follows from this principle is the right to be free, not to be a slave. It is imperative that international community address and duly acknowledge, already far far too late, the magnitude of the tragedy of slavery.

The horror of slavery is profoundly engraved in the experience of the Jewish people — a people formed in slavery. For hundreds of years the children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. The Jewish response to slavery was remarkable. Rather than forget or sublimate the suffering of slavery, Jewish tradition insisted that every Jew must remember and relive it….But remembrance of our suffering as slaves has a more important function — to remind ourselves of our moral obligations….We have a responsibility to protect the weak, the widow and the orphan and the stranger….

And indeed in every country in which they have lived, Jews have been in the forefront of the battle for human rights and freedom from oppression. The same urge for national liberation, that led to the Exodus, and that led to the Zionist dream that Jews could live in freedom in their land, was intrinsically bound up with the belief that not just one people, but all peoples must be free. It was this conviction that Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, expressed in his book Altneuland, as early as 1902: "There is still one problem of racial misfortune unsolved. The depths of that problem only a Jew can comprehend. I refer to the problem of the Blacks…. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of Israel, my people, I wish to assist the redemption of the Black people…."

If slavery is one form of racist atrocity, anti-Semitism is another….Those uncomfortable recognizing the existence of anti-Semitism not only try to redefine the term, they try to deny that it is different from any other form of discrimination. But it is a unique form of hatred. It is directed at those of particular birth, irrespective of their faith, and those of particular faith, irrespective of their birth. It is the oldest and most persistent form of group hatred; in our century this ultimate hatred has led to the ultimate crime, the Holocaust….Those who cannot bring themselves to recognize the unique evil of anti-Semitism, similarly cannot accept the stark fact of the Holocaust, the first systematic attempt to destroy an entire people. The past decade has witnessed an alarming increase in attempts to deny the simple fact of this atrocity, at the very time that the Holocaust is passing from living memory to history. After wiping out 6 million Jewish lives, there are those who would wipe out their deaths. At this Conference too, we have witnessed a vile attempt to generalize and pluralize the word ‘Holocaust’, and to empty it of its meaning as a reference to a specific historic event with a clear and vital message for all humanity….

The 20th century, which witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, also witnessed the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Israel’s historic land. For Zionism is quite simply that — the national movement of the Jewish people, based on an unbroken connection, going back some 4000 years, between the People of the Book and the Land of the Bible. It is like the liberation movements of Africa and Asia, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. And it is a movement of which other national liberation movements can be justly proud. It has strived continually to establish a society which reflects highest ideals of democracy and justice for all its inhabitants, in which Jew and Arab can live together, in which women and men have equal rights, in which there is freedom of thought of expression, and in which all have access to the judicial process to ensure these rights are protected.

….It is a tall task. It is a constant struggle. And we do not always succeed. But, even in the face of the open hostility of its neighbors and continued threats to its existence, there are few countries that have made such efforts to realize such a vision. Few countries of Israel’s age and size have welcomed immigrants from over one hundred countries, of all colors and tongues, sent medical aid and disaster relief to alleviate human tragedy wherever it strikes, maintained a free press, including the freest Arabic press anywhere in the Middle East.

And yet those who cannot bring themselves to say the words "the Holocaust", or to recognize anti-Semitism for the evil that it is, would have us condemn the "racist practices of Zionism". Did any one of those Arab states which conceived this obscenity stop for one moment to consider their own record? Or to think, for that matter, of the situation of the Jews and other minorities their own countries?

These states would have us believe that they are anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, but again and again this lie is disproved. What are the despicable caricatures of Jews that fill the Arab press and are being circulated at this Conference: what are the vicious libels so freely invented and disseminated by our enemies if not the reincarnation of age-old anti-Semitic canards?

There is profound difference between criticizing a country, and denying its right to exist. Anti-Zionism, the denial of Jews the basic right to a home, is nothing but anti-Semitism, pure and simple…. The conflict between us and our Palestinian neighbors is not racial, and has no place at this Conference. It is political and territorial, and as such can and should be resolved to end the suffering and bring peace and security to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples…. The outrageous and manic accusations we have heard here are attempts to turn a political issue into a racial one, with almost no hope of resolution…..

The head of the Palestinian Authority, rather than utilize this vital forum to inspire his own people, and the people of the world, to seek peace, honor and harmony, he chose to use this podium to incite to bitterness and hatred. Another missed opportunity by the leader of the Palestinian people….

Here today, something greater even than peace in the Middle East is being sacrificed — the highest values of humanity…..Humanity is being sacrificed to a political agenda….. Can there be a greater irony than the fact that a conference convened to combat the scourge of racism should give rise to the most racist declaration in a major international organization since the Second World War?

Despite the vicious anti-Semitism we have heard here, I do not fear for the Jewish people, which has learned to be resilient and to hold fast to its faith. Despite the virulent incitement against my country, I do not fear for Israel, which has the strength not just of courage, but also of conviction.

But I do fear, deeply, for the victims of racism. For the slaves, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the inexplicably hated, the impoverished, the despised, the millions who turn their eyes to this hall, in the frail hope that it may address their suffering. Who see instead that a blind and venal hatred of the Jews has turned their hopes into a farce. For them I fear.

We are here as representatives of states, and states of their nature have political interests and agendas. But we are also human beings, all of us brothers and sisters created in the divine image. And in those quiet moments when we recognize our common humanity, and look into our soul, let us consider what we came here to do – and what we have in fact done:

We came to learn from our history, but we find it being buried to hide its lessons.

We came to communicate in the language of humanity, but we hear its vocabulary twisted beyond all comprehension.

We came out of respect for the sacred values entrusted to us, but see them here perverted for political ends.

And ultimately, we came to serve the victims of racism, but have witnessed yet another atrocity, committed in their name.