Op-Ed: At Durban II, little has changed

Daniel S. Mariaschin, left, and Richard D. Heideman  ()

Daniel S. Mariaschin, left, and Richard D. Heideman ()

GENEVA (JTA) — At the risk of a making a premature pronouncement, the more things change, the more they stay the same, at least regarding the United Nations and Israel.This week’s United Nations Durban Review Conference on racism is an event meant to tackle a truly global problem — racism and intolerance. But again, a U.N. conference meant to take on a serious issue has been hijacked.

We were in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 when the United Nations’ original anti-racism conference degenerated into an anti-Israel conference. At the time, B’nai B’rith joined other nongovernmental organizations and the United States, Israel and Canada in walking out in protest.

The conference taking place here this week was meant to review the progress of declarations from the original World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Instead it’s eight years ago all over again. The planning for this 2009 conference included the same unrelenting focus on Israel and the same anti-Semitic proclamations as the original.

This time, not surprisingly, the biggest Israel critic was Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When he spoke on the first day of the conference, delegates from 23 European Union nations and B’nai B’rith International’s contingent walked out. His blatantly racist and anti-Israel language was par for the course for a leader who has called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

During his 40-minute speech, Ahmadinejad said that the foundation of the State of Israel rendered “an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering” in order “to establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine.”

Ahmadinejad went on to say, “In fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine. It is all the more regrettable that a number of Western governments and the United States have committed themselves to defend those racist perpetrators of genocide.”

This from the leader of a nation with one of the world’s worst records on human rights.

The conduct of some governments is better than expected, worse for others. Many nations are recognizing the futility of confronting such an important subject in the current environment. Israel and Canada were the first to withdraw support for the conference. The United States also announced months ago it would not attend, and Italy soon followed suit. Now, as the conference gets started, Australia, Germany, Holland, Poland and New Zealand have all withdrawn, declaring the conference hopelessly tainted. The Czech Republic walked out in protest of Ahmadinejad and did not return.

B’nai B’rith has a large delegation here to monitor the proceedings of a conference supposedly devoted to combating racism and intolerance. It is our duty to speak firmly and loudly when the mission misses its mark. We are speaking loudly now. But is anyone at the United Nations listening?

What is particularly distressing is that all the negative focus on Israel has diverted attention from an issue that needs much attention. What happened to addressing the very real problems of discrimination and intolerance in our world? Unfortunately it has been far easier for countries with some of the world’s worst human rights records — Libya, Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance — to point accusatory fingers at Israel.

The negative obsession with Israel — the sole democracy in the Middle East — is completely out of proportion. Blatant racism, human rights violations and intolerances by numerous nations go undeterred and unremarked upon, while Israel is vilified. Women are forbidden to congregate publicly in Iran and are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, North Koreans are starving to death and in Darfur, hundreds of thousands have been murdered and millions displaced. Somehow these transgressions are excused or ignored.

It is shameful that immoral voting blocs can distort the truth and even sway an international organization like the United Nations, which is meant to unify nations.

Nothing has changed in the eight years since the original conference, and that’s a disgrace. An international conference against racism should promote fair and uniform human rights standards and be built on a framework of civil conduct and mutual respect. The Durban II conference has blatantly rejected human rights standards and mutual respect.

Our high hopes for the original Durban anti-racism conference were squelched. Eight years later, not much has changed. But we cannot give up. Just because the system is flawed doesn’t mean that global racism and intolerance don’t need to be addressed. We will continue our vigilant effort to stand up for what is right.

(Richard Heideman, a noted Washington attorney, is honorary president of B’nai B’rith International and leads its delegation in Geneva. Daniel Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, an accredited NGO with special consultative status that has been involved at the United Nations since its inception in 1945.)

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