By Michael J. Jordan
GENEVA (JTA) -- The question of whether last week’s Durban Review Conference was a success or a failure is in the eye of the beholder.
Marked by boycotts, walkouts, an attack on Israel by Iran’s president and a premature concluding resolution, it was another U.N. anti-racism conference dominated by the Middle East conflict.
With some concern that such events might overtake the conference, participating countries passed Durban II’s final resolution three days early, heralding “a new beginning” in the global campaign against “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
But for pro-Israel and some human rights groups, the sense of a new beginning was less clear.
On the one hand, the conference’s resolution enshrined the most divisive element of the original 2001 Durban Declaration Program of Action: Under “victims of racism,” it again cited the Palestinians -- implying, many say, Israeli racism.
On the other hand, 10 countries boycotted the conference, including the Czech Republic, which walked out in the middle; the conference’s final resolution adopted no new language singling out Israel; European countries took a strong stand against anti-Israel invective by walking out during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s diatribe against the Jewish state from the U.N. podium; and pro-Israel groups’ persistent efforts to contextualize and, to some extent, discredit the conference drew wide attention and debate.
“This was the least toxic outcome from such a conference in three decades,” Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said of the conference’s final document.
Neuer credited the Europeans for sticking to red lines that ensured Israel would not be singled out again.
For their part, pro-Israel groups came in much larger numbers than at Durban I, where Jews were overwhelmed by a pro-Palestinian presence. Some 360 Jewish students were accredited, roughly one-third of all the activists accredited, and they advocated on Israel’s behalf throughout the week.
Jewish groups hosted or participated in daily pro-Israel or pro-human rights events outside the U.N. grounds, organized anti-discrimination panels inside the United Nations and brought in some of the heaviest hitters in pro-Israel advocacy: Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, attorney Alan Dershowitz, Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler, French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, actor Jon Voight and Father Patrick Desbois, among others.
“We wanted to be sure that if something happened here like in Durban, we’d be ready to respond,” said Jonas Karpantschof, the Danish chairman of the European Union of Jewish Students.
During Ahmadinejad’s speech, one Jewish activist wearing a clown wig rushed the podium, while others shouted “Racist!” from the gallery before being ejected. Before the conference’s conclusion, two Jewish groups had their accreditation revoked for disruptive behavior.
Jewish groups also worked behind the scenes to ensure positive media coverage for Israel’s defenders as well as for dissidents from places such as Burma, Cuba, Iran, Egypt and Sudan’s Darfur region.
Suzette Bronkhurst of the Dutch anti-racism group ICARE called the conference “an exercise in damage control” to limit the discrediting of the Durban process for its focus on Israel in 2001.
If history is any guide, the goings-on at Geneva will be better remembered than the official resolution adopted by the conference.
After the 2001 anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, many governments around the world did little to highlight the document -- not because of its reference to the Palestinians, but because authoritarian governments have little interest in their own marginalized peoples holding them accountable for state-sanctioned discrimination, according to NGO leaders in Geneva.
“It’s our clear impression and conclusion that Durban is one of the least-distributed documents -- not distributed in certain countries and certain languages,” said Jan Lonn, coordinator of the Civil Society Forum, which harshly criticized Israel in events prior to the Geneva conference.
That doesn’t mean the Durban process will disappear. A working group of U.N. member states remains ostensibly focused on implementing the Durban resolution, as does a 25-member anti-discrimination unit within the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
However, the U.N. special rapporteur on racism, Githu Muigai of Kenya, suggested to the media last week the possibility of downscaling Durban-related events in the future.
The proceedings illustrated the need “to keep inflammatory ideological debates away from concrete, technical work that really needs to be done on the area of racism,” Muigai said. “Many of the issues that came to dominate the debate have essentially nothing to do with the debate on racism.”
Others were skeptical that future Durban-related events would be able to steer clear of the politically charged Israeli-Arab conflict.
“You still have the states who want to use this platform to disguise their own human-rights violations by bashing on a scapegoat, usually Israel,” said Shimon Samuels, director of international relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “See you at Durban III.”
It also remains to be seen whether the drama that unfolded last week in Geneva will have any influence on the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, which is plagued by the very same issues: disproportionate condemnation of Israel, silence on human rights violators around the world and zeal for banning “defamation of religions,” especially Islam. Western critics see this as a gambit to restrict free speech and curb criticism of Islamic extremism.
At least one of the countries that boycotted Durban II -- the United States -- announced recently that it would end its boycott of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Will the Obama administration try to enforce at the council the same red lines it applied to Durban II?
“These contentious issues won’t go away overnight,” said Tad Stahnke of the Washington-based group Human Rights First. “It will take a long-term strategy and investment for the council to address human-rights abuses in a more credible way.”