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Fears of another Durban

Activists from around the world demonstrated against Israel during the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban.<br />
 (Julian Voloj)

Activists from around the world demonstrated against Israel during the 2001 U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban.
(Julian Voloj)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (JTA) – The run-up to a major U.N. anti-racism conference planned for April appears to be mimicking the 2001 Durban gathering that notoriously singled out Israel with the most incendiary language in the human-rights lexicon.

At a preparatory meeting last month in Geneva, the “Asian Group” reintroduced language drawn from 2001 pressing for any final document to pronounce the Jewish state guilty of “a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity, a form of genocide” and “acts of racism.” The group’s Middle Eastern member-states bar Israel from joining.

This week also brought renewed concern of a repeat of the anti-Jewish intimidation that marked the South African event seven years ago.

The developments are confirming long-held fears by Jewish activists that despite platitudes to the contrary, the follow-up to the first anti-racism conference will unfairly target Israel.

The 2009 World Conference Against Racism, slated to take place in Geneva, is billed as another landmark event, the most important such gathering in years and one that advocates say must send a tough message to human-rights abusers.

Concerned about the direction the conference was headed, Israel and Canada already have vowed not to participate. The United States is still seen as on the fence about its participation.

Many observers were looking to the European Union, which in September reiterated the “red lines” to avoid repetition of Durban 2001: no singling out of any state; no hierarchy of victims; and no outlawing of defamation of religions, which many see as infringing on free speech.

But after the preparatory conference, “the red lines aren’t breached, they’re shattered,” said Hillel Neuer, the executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group affiliated with the American Jewish Committee.

While some defenders of Israel tend to be dismissive of the world body as hopelessly biased against the Jewish state, conferences such as the April 2009 meeting produce nonbinding documents that when cited and repeated often can become building blocks for international law. At the very least they fuel anti-Israel propaganda that helps shape the opinion of millions worldwide.

That explains why events at Geneva last month sparked alarm.

Beyond the inflammatory text, dozens of nongovernmental organizations hostile to Israel unveiled their campaign for another “NGO Forum” just before or alongside the official diplomatic gathering.

It was the 2001 NGO forum in Durban that enshrined the most extreme anti-Israel language in its final document. It also launched the global boycott and divestment campaign that likened Israel to apartheid South Africa and is pursued today by many pro-Palestinian groups worldwide.

After the Israeli and U.S. delegations walked out in Durban, the then-U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, also found the wording so excessive that she declined to forward the text to government representatives to absorb into their own document.

By comparison, the official state-sponsored final declaration was far tamer and more balanced in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The new high commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, opened the Geneva meeting last month by condemning “the virulent anti-Semitic behavior" of some anti-Israel groups “on the sidelines” at Durban, but not the NGO document itself.

Pillay went on to acknowledge that “this review process is burdened, understandably, with a fear that incidents expressing hatred and intolerance will be repeated. It would be tragic to allow this fear to compromise our efforts to find common ground.”

Yet with Libya chairing the entire process, and Iran, Cuba and Pakistan serving as vice chairs, Jewish observers say it has become clear the Islamic bloc and its allies from the developing world have widened the crosshairs to target the West itself. High on the agenda is rising Islamophobia, denunciation of post-9/11 profiling of possible terrorists as inherently racist and steps to ban “defamation of religions” like Islam – known historically as blasphemy.

In a report issued this week, UN Watch went so far as to declare, “The aggressive campaign to impose a new regime of global censorship, dictated by Islamic sensitivities, makes the Durban II language even worse than that of the original conference in 2001."

A key question now, said Neuer and others, is if the Europeans – led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy ,who holds the E.U.’s rotating chair until Jan. 1 – will abandon the conference, harpooning its credibility.

“We know that for the Europeans, it’s against their DNA to walk out of a conference or to upset countries with whom they have trade relations,” Neuer said. “But Sarkozy is of a certain mettle and keeps his word. Will he work to excise these provisions, or disengage as he promised to do?”

Indeed, a showdown looms.

Last spring, at another preparatory conference in Geneva, Israel’s most strident critics were somewhat subdued. Some Jewish observers described them as on their “best behavior,” facing the real possibility that the Durban II process might disintegrate entirely.

Now, however, they are “laying their cards on the table,” said Anne Bayefsky, a Canadian law professor and director of the Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust at Touro College.

"They attempted to cover up their real intentions, but we’re only six months away from the conference, so they had to come out of the closet,” said Bayefsky, a regular attendee of preparatory meetings.

During the spring sessions, the talk was to skip an NGO forum and instead fold NGO participation into the governmental gathering, with each group entitled to three to five minutes per day to speak. In Geneva last month, however, a coalition of U.N.-accredited NGOs mobilized to push for a parallel meeting of their own – on U.N. grounds.

To date, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received no official request, spokesman Rupert Colville told JTA.

“Whether or not there is an NGO forum depends essentially on the NGO community," he said. "It is up to them to decide.”

Whether it would carry the imprimatur of the United Nations is another question.

“Between now and April, there will be constant struggle because the extremists who want to maximize the attacks on Israel see the NGOs as their primary vehicle,” said Gerald Steinberg of the Jerusalem-based watchdog NGO Monitor. In the court of public opinion, Steinberg said, “NGOs have the facade as being above politics, representing universal morality and human rights principles.”

Meanwhile, the Simon Wiesenthal Center this week fired off a letter to the mayor of Geneva in response to reports that the local Green Party had requested that the city host the NGO Forum. In imploring city officials to deny “a replica of the Durban hate-fest,” the center also called on the city to “provide all Jewish institutions in Geneva with adequate protection during the April event.”

As Shimon Samuels, the center’s director of international relations, later recalled to JTA, one night during the Durban conference, police protecting the Durban Jewish Club held off hundreds of local Muslims who were “screaming ‘Hitler was right.’ I was there and will never forget it.”

While it’s unclear whether the new U.S. administration will attend or boycott the event, some Jewish groups are grappling with the question, too.

“We think it is vital that Jewish organizations be on the front line in defending Jewish interests, including Israel,” said Sybil Sanchez, the director of B’nai B’rith International’s office of U.N. affairs. “However, we are concerned that a point may come where the deck is so stacked against us that we would have to reconsider this approach. That moment has not arrived, and we are doing all we can to prevent it from arriving.”

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