Final Durban Thoughts

Today is the final day of the controversial Durban Review Conference on anti-racism, and, as I’ve discussed a bit before, so begins the campaign to shape the conference in the public memory. As with “Durban I,” and as in the run-up to this week’s summit in Geneva, the voices intent on smearing the conference will likely be louder, more strident, and more tendentious in arguing their already foregone conclusions. What I’ve noticed, though, is that this is exactly what the almost two-year campaign of denigrating the Review Conference has been — an effort, not at all apolitical, to ensure that, before it even started, the conference would be branded in the public mind as irredeemably racist, hate-mongering, and anti-Semitic.

I am not exonerating the conference of its flaws, nor watering down the distastefulness of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inexcusable attempt at provocation. Certain participants still — foolishly — used their brief time at the podium to slander Israel. But all in all, as, again, this Zvika Krieger dispatch for The New Republic demonstrates, the reality for those expecting a virulent anti-Semitic hatefest was underwhelming.

As I’ve said, and as Zvika too pointed out, much of this has to do with explicit steps taken by the conference’s organizers: they did not hold a separate NGO forum, the locus for the majority of attacks in 2001; they moved the conference’s venue to Geneva, where cracking down on extremist NGOs would be more effective; and they learned their lessons, and came to agreement over a legitimate compromise document early in the process.

From a more right-of-center source, The Economist:

For those who walked back in, another source of relief was the fact that few were inclined to follow the lead of Mr Ahmadinejad (the only head of government who was present) and focus mainly on Israel and the Middle East. This change of tone, plus the fact that a carefully drafted resolution was adopted by consensus, led some Western governments to claim that the sharp-tongued visitor had been neutralised. It all “showed just how out of step the Iranian government is,” said Peter Gooderham, Britain’s envoy to the UN in Geneva.

So while the attention may — unfortunately, and counter-productively — linger on Ahmadinejad, the fact is that he is remembered as an isolated crazy, whose offensive bloviating was vehemently opposed by European delegates and by the UN head himself. I’ve even read the argument that the attention on Ahmadinejad’s antics — and the protests they inspired — may have actually benefitted Israel PR-wise.

Strangely, but unsurprisingly, even the fact that the conference adopted its official document ahead of schedule is being twisted by anti-Durban partisans as evidence of a “transparent public relations effort at damage control” after Ahmadinejad’s rant. Certainly it was designed to shift the focus away from the sideshow of the Iranian leader’s publicity stunt, but that’s because the focus should be on what the conference’s actual participants were able to achieve.

With the relative tameness of the conference’s atmosphere, opponents were left grasping for straws to prove their pre-ordained verdict of its utter depravity. (Hence the myopic obstinacy of refusing to accept the new document simply because it referred to its now historically-maligned predecessor.) The Durban Review Conference was not a smashing success — thanks largely to spoiler countries, yes, but certainly not aided by the absence of the United States and other confident rights-upholding countries.  But if it was supposed to be, as Claudia Rosett so assuredly declares, “a vehicle for anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and an array of other U.N. campaigns targeting free societies,” then it was almost certainly a failure.