It’s Called the Durban REVIEW Conference For a Reason

The Durban Review Conference is scheduled to be held in Geneva next month. Its purpose, as one might gather from its title, is to review implementation of the measures decided upon in 2001, at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. It’s clear, then, that opponents of the whole process have run out of substantive complaints when they start objecting to even the rather tame notion that the upcoming conference will use its predecessor as a starting point.

With the European Union threatening to join the United States, Israel, and Canada in already committing to a boycott of the Review Conference, the rather odd bedfellows of Russia, Norway, Egypt, and Belgium put together a new compromise document for the April conference to work off of. Even by the admissions of some hardcore Durban opponents, this version steers clear of most of the “red lines” that Western countries had set, including language forbidding the “defamation of religions” and any mention of Israel whatsoever. The remaining sticking point, then, for such chronic hyperventilaters as Anne Bayefsky, is that the document — gasp — dares to reference and “reaffirm” the final outcome document of the 2001 conference, the Durban Declaration and Program of Action.

The objection to this boilerplate statement is utterly ridiculous. Of course the Durban Review Conference will start by building off of the outcome document of the original Durban Conference. Indeed, this premise would be objectionable if, as Bayefsky contends, the earlier text “says Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism–with Israel the only U.N. state found guilty of racism.” But such bunk, plain and simple, is nowhere to be found in the original Durban Declaration.

As I’ve written before, the way that Durban opponents have been able to distort the very content of this first Declaration to suit their purposes is staggering. What the Declaration actually is is a remarkable document, containing hundreds of provisions to combat racism, xenophobia, and intolerance, and amounting to perhaps the most ambitious and substantive anti-racism agenda ever agreed to on a global scale. The only thread of substance to the wild claims of revisionists is that Israel is in fact, regrettably, the only country mentioned by name in the document. The most egregious mention of the country, however, is an expression of sympathy for Palestinians “under foreign occupation” — followed immediately by a recognition of Israel’s right to security. And while the use of the o-word is, indeed legitimately, objectionable, surely one word is not worth throwing out dozens of pages of worthwhile anti-racism measures?

What is remembered most about the Durban conference in 2001 is, unfortunately, the utterly inexcusable anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing that went on outside the conference itself, at an unrelated NGO forum that certain organizations hijacked for hateful purposes. None of this, however, had anything to do with the official Durban Declaration and Program of Action. The NGO forum’s document, in fact, was so odious that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights refused to even touch it.

What attempts there were at the conference itself to inject unacceptable anti-Semitic language into the outcome document were deflected by the skillful maneuvering of EU countries, who successfully marginalized any such filth (after, it should be noted, the United States and Israel had already made up their mind and departed). With the potential for consensus this time around, it would be a shame if the EU’s latest adroit diplomacy were to fall short because of a complete misreading of what was agreed upon in 2001.