The United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance met in Durban, South Africa from August 31 to September 8, 2001. The UN General Assembly authorized the conference in Resolution 52/111 in 1997, aiming to explore effective methods to eradicate racial discrimination and to promote awareness in the global struggle against intolerance.
Yet the noble goals of the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism were undermined by hateful anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-Israel political agendas, prompting both Israel and the United States to withdraw their delegations from the conference. Participants revived the scurrilous charge that "Zionism is Racism" and used false and hostile allegations to delegitimize Israel.
In the weeks prior to the conference, the United States had warned organizers that it would withdraw from Durban if the early anti-Jewish charges and the condemnations of Israel remained unchallenged. After four days of fruitless negotiations, the U.S. delegation withdrew on September 3, midway through the conference, unable to turn the focus of the conference back to its original goals. The aim to combat discrimination and intolerance worldwide was ironically superceded by a bigoted campaign to single out one nation for criticism.
The September 3 statement of withdrawal of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell read:
Today I have instructed our representatives at the World Conference Against Racism to return home. I have taken this decision with regret, because of the importance of the international fight against racism and the contribution that the Conference could have made to it. But, following discussions today by our team in Durban and others who are working for a successful conference, I am convinced that will not be possible. I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of "Zionism equals racism;" or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world--Israel--for censure and abuse.1
Copies of the anti-Semitic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were sold on conference grounds; anti-Israel protesters jeered participants chanting "Zionism is racism, Israel is apartheid," and "You have Palestinian blood on your hands"; fliers depicting Hitler with the question, "What if I had won?" circulated among conference attendees. The answer: "There would be NO Israel and NO Palestinian bloodshed."
On September 3, in the Israeli official proclamation, delivered by Head of the Israeli Delegation Ambassador Mordecai Yedid, Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior wrote:
Racism, in all its forms, is one of the most widespread and pernicious evils, depriving millions of hope and fundamental rights. It might have been hoped that this first Conference of the 21st century would have taken up the challenge of, if not eradicating racism, at least disarming it: But instead humanity is being sacrificed to a political agenda. ... Can there be a greater irony than the fact that a conference convened to combat the scourge of racism should give rise to the most racist declaration in a major international organization since the Second World War?2
In addition to the UN government conference against racism, Durban simultaneously hosted a UN conference of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The NGO conference, according to the UN, aimed to publicize the "voices of the victims." In this forum, the Jewish Caucus proposed that Holocaust denial and anti-Jewish violence caused by Jewish support for Israel be labeled forms of anti-Semitism. The proposal was almost unanimously defeated. Anne Bayefsky, a NGO participant, and a representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, commented. "The only group that voted for it was the Jews. Of all the 'voices of the victims' put into the resolution, only one voice was deleted - the Jewish voice."3
Bayefsky reported, "Like all Jewish participants, I felt concern for my safety. The Jewish Center in Durban was forced to close because of threats of violence." During an NGO discussion on Palestinian issues, representatives of human rights organizations asked Bayefsky to leave: "They explained to me that as a representative of a Jewish organization, I was biased and couldn't be counted on to act in the interest of general human rights."4
The representatives at the NGO conference removed a key paragraph on anti-Semitism by unanimous vote, prompting a Jewish Caucus walk out. The removed paragraph read:
We are concerned with the prevalence of Anti-Zionism and attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel through wildly inaccurate charges of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, as a virulent contemporary form of anti-Semitism leading to firebombing of synagogues, armed assaults against Jews, incitements to killing, and the murder of innocent Jews, for their support for the existence of the State of Israel, the assertion of the right to self determination of the Jewish people and the attempts, through the State of Israel, to preserve their cultural and religious identity.5
Soon after the American and Israeli pullout, the Jewish Caucus formally withdrew from the NGO conference.
The final resolution of the NGO conference, which was overwhelmingly adopted, called Israel "a racist apartheid state," guilty of the "systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing ... and state terror against the Palestinian people."6
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, called the allegations accusing Israel of war crimes "inappropriate and unacceptable," but did not reject the document. She mentioned that the NGO resolution included constructive proposals on hate crimes, indigenous peoples, and caste issues. In traditional UN practice, the Secretary-General of the conference officially "recommends" the NGO resolution to the government conference, but Robinson said she "could not recommend the document to the government delegates in its entirety."7
Major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers for Human Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights also expressed criticism of the anti-Jewish language of the NGO resolution, but raised their concerns two days after the conclusion of the NGO conference. Overall, they endorsed the resolution. Amnesty International said, "Although not accepting or condoning some of the language used within the NGO Declaration, Amnesty International accepts the declaration as a largely positive document which gives a voice to all the victims of racism wherever it occurs."8
The UN government conference, stalled over references to the Middle East situation, concluded on September 8, a full day past its scheduled end date, with an adoption of a "compromise" proposal between the European Union and the Arab countries. The chair of the conference, South African Foreign Minister Zuma, asked delegates to leave complex Middle East issues aside and to "focus on not doing anything to cause this conference to collapse."9
But Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara insisted on adding language explicitly condemning Israel's "foreign occupation." Brazil proposed a "motion of no action" suggesting that conference not address issues on which it would not agree. The "motion of no action" was approved by a vote of 51-38. Arab and Muslim states voted against the proposal.
The final declaration of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance included the following passages relevant to Israel:10
63. We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion;
64. We call for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognized human rights, and security;
65. We recognize the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties in dignity and safety, and urge all States to facilitate such return;
151. As for the situation in the Middle East, calls for the end of violence and the swift resumption of negotiations, respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, respect for the principle of self-determination and the end of all suffering, thus allowing Israel and the Palestinians to resume the peace process, and to develop and prosper in security and freedom.
1Statement by Secretary Colin L. Powell. World Conference Against Racism. US State Department. Washington, DC, September 3, 2001.
2Statement by Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Foreign Minister of the State of Israel. Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Durban, September 3, 2001.
3Glick, Caroline B. "Human Rights & Wrongs." Moment Magazine. 15 Jul 2002.
8Amnesty International, (September 7, 2001), AI Index IOR 41/022/2001.
10Declaration. UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance - Declaration and Programme of Action. (September 8, 2001).