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The debacle of the 2001 Durban "anti-racism" conference has left a terrible taste in everyone's mouth. The last conference is remembered for the noisy and ugly, if inconsequential, demonstration of anti-Semitism and "anti-Zionism" that made people forget that the conference was supposedly fighting racism. With Libya and Iran in the driver's seat, one might think the next conference will be as bad or worse than the last one.

That may not be the case however, as Benjamin Pogrund explains in a report that first appeared at the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria. We can all hope he is right, but somehow, it seems unlikely that the rerun of this conference will really focus on racism.

Pushing the World's Battle against Racism
By Benjamin Pogrund

Planning is underway for next year's Durban Review Conference -- the follow-up to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) held in Durban in August/September 2001. The Preparatory Committee ended a two-week meeting in Geneva last week after much negotiating behind the scenes, but with little to show in public. It failed to agree on the venue, length and date for the Durban Review Conference.

The 2001 conference was intended as a highlight in the struggle against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and other forms of intolerance. It was an especially noteworthy event for South Africa as a celebratory culmination of the end of apartheid nearly seven years earlier. Unhappily, as will be remembered, the conference was mired in controversy and failed to live up to all its expectations.

It was in fact two conferences: the first, of NGOs, adopted a range of resolutions assailing Israel as "the new apartheid" and accusing it of racism, genocide and much else besides. The condemnation was carried forward in excitable street marches around the conference venue.

The ugliness and excesses of the NGO meeting intruded into the conference of governments that followed immediately after. The United States and Israel walked out in protest, and EU countries threatened to do so. With Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, South Africa's Foreign Minister, in the chair, hasty work and negotiations behind the scenes brought the meeting back from the brink: virtually every reference to Israel was deleted from the final official text.
But the damage went deep. In a recent report, the Netherlands-based ICARE (Internet Centre Anti-Racism Europe) said the NGO conference became "an anti-Semitic hate fest." It gave this description: "Both the WCAR NGO Forum and the Governmental conference suffered from hate-mongering and extreme politicisation. In the Governmental part, subjects like Dalits and Roma did not make it into the official UN Declaration. Anti-Semitism was deleted or misrepresented in the NGO Declaration." It said that the adoption of the Forum's declaration was a "sham" and became "the first NGO document in the history of the UN that could not be recommended to the Governments, since it contained hate and discrimination."

The 9/11 Twin Towers destruction in New York a few days later drove the Durban meetings off the world stage. But the anger and disappointment at what had happened simmered on and seven months later, Aziz Pahad, Deputy Foreign Minister, spoke bluntly at the annual conference of the South Africa Zionist Federation. He referred to the "disgraceful events" surrounding the NGO conference and said: "I wish to make it unequivocally clear that the South African Government recognises that part of that component was hijacked and used by some with an anti-Israeli agenda to turn it into an anti-Semitic event." Putting the NGO conference into perspective, he added: "Recognition of this, however, was precisely the reason for the refusal of the world's governments ... to accept the final statement of NGO proceedings into the final document of the Conference."

In February this year, President Thabo Mbeki, in his state of the nation address to Parliament, said that South Africa would host next year's Review Conference. However, that intention seems to have slipped away and the venue is to be chosen at a meeting on 26 May. Vienna and Geneva are possibilities, while the African Group wants Paris. Nigeria and Brazil have offered to host earlier regional meetings.

Understandably, there are apprehensions that the Durban Review Conference will follow the pattern of 2001. Some critics have even been inaccurately calling it Durban 2. Adding to anxiety is the presence of several non-democratic countries, such as Libya, in the planning. Canada has already announced that it will not take part, although it was an observer in Geneva. Israel says it will wait to see what happens before deciding. The United States is not taking part in the preparatory process and the next administration will decide on participation. The EU and other European countries are taking part now, but are certainly watching warily.

Discussions in Geneva included issues like drafting the outcome of the Review Conference and what constitutes discrimination. There was also a challenge, led by Iran, to the accreditation of CIJA, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy. CIJA finally withdrew its application, saying that the "much-touted" Durban Review process was "no different from its predecessor." India challenged accreditation for about 40 NGOs, both domestic and a Danish-based Dalits organisation; however, only seven responded to requests for further information and they were accepted.

On the whole, there appears to have been a desire in Geneva to avoid the self-destructiveness of Durban 2001, and to downplay the role of NGOs. NGOs want another conference next year and look to the UN and member states to pay for it. But it will not happen: a UN official said there was no money or administrative structure for it. One issue that could generate great dispute is a move by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to redefine anti-Semitism to include 'anti-Arabism'; this would be seen by many as an attempt to dilute the strength of 'anti-Semitism' in describing anti-Jewish attitudes and actions.

Behind the activity, the vital cause is the furtherance of worldwide action against racism and other discrimination. South Africa, with its experience of hosting Durban 2001, and for greater reason than most because of its history of apartheid suffering, can no doubt be expected to throw its weight into resisting any elements that again try to undermine this vital cause.

Meanwhile, South Africa's policy on the Middle East was again spelt out last week at a Freedom Day party in Tel Aviv. Ambassador Fumanekile Gqiba told the hundreds of guests that South Africa supported Palestinian aspirations and Israel's existence, and saw the way forward through a two-state solution. Proposing the toast to South Africa, Israeli cabinet minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer urged support in the search for peace for "pragmatists and moderates" and not for "extremists."



i Published first at the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria and reproduced by permission. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of MidEastWeb for Coexistence or of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) or the University of Pretoria
ii Benjamin Pogrund is Director of Yakar's Centre for Social Concern in Jerusalem. South African-born, he was Deputy Editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and has written books about Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and the Press under apartheid.
iii Reports on the Preparatory Committee meetings in Geneva are at http://www.icare.to


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