When Iran effectively blocked a Canadian pro-Israel group from joining preparations for a major anti-racism forum last week, it drew headlines. But it was the quiet accreditation of a Palestinian group that in the end raised more eyebrows.
With the 2009 World Conference Against Racism one year away, United Nations officials and Western diplomats have vowed to prevent a repeat of the 2001 forum in Durban, South Africa, which was dominated by aggressively pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.
Canada, the United States and Israel already have expressed their doubts, however, indicating they will boycott the worldâ€™s largest anti-racism forum in 2009, just as they boycotted the two-week “preparatory conference” in this Swiss city.
With questions still swirling around the location of next yearâ€™s conference, how serious the discussions will be and if any other nations will join in boycotting the event, U.N. diplomats in Geneva last week supplied critics with more grist.
They accredited the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, an umbrella group that uses the controversial security barrier dividing Israel from parts of the West Bank as the hook to promote boycott, divestment and sanctions — known as “BDS” — against Israel.
Felice Gaer, the director of the American Jewish Committeeâ€™s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, said the lack of resistance by the U.N. secretariat and Western nations over the accreditation was “baffling” and “inexplicable,” given that in Durban, the then-U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, rejected any comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa.
“Misuse of the terms â€˜genocideâ€™ and â€˜apartheidâ€™ with reference to Israel” is a “big part of what discredited Durban,” said Gaer, who was in Durban in 2001 and in Geneva last week at the preparatory conference.
Beyond the accreditation, preparations that were light on substance but heavy on process — and marked by modest attendance and long lunch breaks — hinted that while Israel likely will be targeted, it will not be the singular focus of 2009.
Rather, the Islamic worldâ€™s cause celebre seems to be defamation of religion — or blasphemy — and other anti-Western jabs such as post 9/11 racial profiling, anti-terrorism measures and Islamophobia.
Meanwhile, African member-states and “African descendant” groups are using the forum to pursue their own beef with the West, renewing calls for reparations arising from slavery.
Still, the Middle East conflict reared its head in various forms last week, the least publicized of which was the accreditation of the anti-apartheid network.
One watchdog, Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of NGO Monitor, said he watched the U.N. session via Webcast from his base in Jerusalem and saw a rerun of 2001 unfolding.
“Once such a radical Palestinian group is let in, thereâ€™s no longer hope for a civilized discussion of racism and discrimination,” Steinberg said. “Then the only logical decision is to boycott the whole process, to discredit the 2009 conference so it doesnâ€™t carry the legitimacy that the 2001 event had.”
Indeed, as the planned gathering approaches, the boycott question likely will continue to simmer among Jewish groups.
If last week’s events in Geneva are any indication, the United Nations is taking some steps to avoid a “Durban II.”
For example, whereas at the South African event anti-Israel, even anti-Jewish vitriol, spilled onto the streets — sometimes beneath meeting tents — it now seems all but certain that the 2009 gathering will be somewhere on U.N. grounds, probably Geneva or New York.
This is important, activists say, not only because of certain U.N. rules and protocol, but also because security would likely keep troublemakers out or intervene quickly if it erupts inside.
The other key component is that 2009 is unlikely to include a “NGO Forum” to run parallel with the intergovernmental meeting.
It was the NGO Forum in Durban that embraced the harshest anti-Israel language. But this time, with U.N. officials and Western nations apprehensive about an NGO reprise that would undermine the whole venture, funding for such a gathering reportedly is scarce.
“Iâ€™m not going to say there arenâ€™t going to problems, meaning Iâ€™m sure there will be bad language spoken — anti-Israel, anti-Western, anti-U.S. — yet thatâ€™s nothing unusual, as it happens in the U.N. every day,” said Suzette Bronkhorst, the director of projects at the Magenta Foundation, a Dutch anti-racism organization. “But it wonâ€™t be nearly as bad as Durban.”
Magenta, the Blaustein Institute and 94 other civil-society signatories presented U.N. diplomats with five “core principles” last week, urging them to reject any effort to “foment hateful stereotyping in the name of human rights” and “uphold language and behavior that unites rather than divides.”
Despite criticism, NGOs are still seen as a necessary dimension of the process.
For example, only some 39 U.N. member-states responded to a questionnaire describing their internal problems with racism or discrimination. One-quarter denied the existence of any sort of domestic discrimination, racial or otherwise, including countries explicitly criticized in the past, such as Iran.
“Like any addict, they refuse to admit they have a problem,” said Anne Bayefsky, a Canadian law professor and U.N. critic.
During two weeks in Geneva, diplomats often seemed free to sing their countryâ€™s praises. NGO voices, in contrast, could hold governments accountable for their words and actions.
While NGOs had their separate forum in Durban, this time they likely will be integrated within the governmental process. Presumably they will have to request permission to address the forum, as in other U.N. forums, and be limited to five minutes.
Shimon Samuels, the international liaison director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he approached the NGO groups present last week — some historically hostile toward Israel — to call on “our sister anti-racist organizations to protest with us any hijacking or agitations” at the event.
Asked by JTA if he expects these organizations to heed his call, Samuels replied, “I donâ€™t think they will.” He said he expects the Jewish state to again be the target of “demonization and delegitimization” in 2009.
Still, Samuels said he wouldnâ€™t boycott the event.
“If you abandon the battlefield,” he said, “you leave a vacuum to be filled by your enemies.”
As preparations continue, in particular ironing out the “substance” of the 2009 event, the attention now turns to the Europeans to see where, or if, they draw a line.
A Slovenian diplomat speaking on behalf of the European Union had warned of the “unacceptable anti-Semitism” at Durban, “excessive polarization” and “singling out” a “specific geographic situation.”
Yet the Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign was accepted without comment.
“The E.U. has some internal documents,” one Western diplomat told JTA earlier in the week, “and our red lines are very clearly defined.”