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 highlighted the plight of the Palestinians in a section dedicated to "victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance."
“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 what some have called its implicit suggestion that the Palestinians are victims of racism. 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.