Monday, April 20, 2009

Israel flexes its muscles: The West’s shameful boycott of the Durban Review Conference

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said she is “shocked and disappointed” by the US decision not to attend the anti-racism Durban Review Conference which starts today in Geneva, Switzerland. The US joins Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, Netherlands, Germany and Italy in boycotting the conference. Speaking yesterday High Commissioner Navi Pillay said these countries have allowed a couple of issues to dominate, outweighing the needs of numerous groups who suffer worldwide on a daily basis. “These are truly global issues,” she said “And it is essential that they are discussed at a global level, however sensitive and difficult they may be."

Navi Pillay is right. It is shameful that these Western nations have allowed their Israeli interests to trump discussion of a wide range of important human rights issues. According to the Financial Times, the boycotters say they want to avoid a rerun of the original 2001 Durban meeting at which Israel was attacked over its racist policies towards Palestinians. Although this year’s draft communiqué was reworded to address concerns, the US was still unhappy at the final product.

The Obama administration announced its decision on Saturday. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said that although the US was “profoundly committed to ending racism and racial discrimination”, it could not sign up because the language in Friday’s communiqué text reaffirmed the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA). “The DDPA singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Wood. “ The [US] also has serious concerns with relatively new additions to the text regarding ‘incitement,’ that run counter to the US commitment to unfettered free speech.”

Australia used similar arguments in announcing their boycott. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said he’d taken the decision with regret “as Australians are a people committed to eliminating racism and racial discrimination.” He claimed Australia was committed to advancing human rights and had put in place policies to close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people (one of the main items for discussion at the conference). However, he said he could not support a document which reaffirmed the DDPA in its entirety. “We cannot be confident that the Review Conference will not again be used as a platform to air offensive views, including anti-Semitic views,” said Smith. “Of additional concern are the suggestions of some delegations in the Durban process to limit the universal right to free speech.

US and Australian concerns seems over dramatised when looking at the actual text of the original 2001 DDPA (pdf). Just one out of 122 issues related to the treatment of the Palestinians. This is issue 63 which reads: “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.”

Hardly over controversial, and sentiments shared by many across the world. The decision looks even more suspicious having looked at the agenda of the 2001 conference. It dealt with five major human rights themes: trafficking in women and children, migration and discrimination, gender and racial discrimination, racism against indigenous peoples, and protection of minority rights. In none of the press releases related to these five areas, is Israel mentioned by name.

The call for laws against incitement is more problematic, but some boycotting nations already have similar laws (eg Volksverhetzung in Germany) on their books. The relevant passage in the DDPA (Action 145) urges “States to implement legal sanctions, in accordance with relevant international human rights law, in respect of incitement to racial hatred [through the Internet]”. In any case, the action is stated as an “urge” and does not imply outright agreement. And even if the states disagree with the provision, this is surely not reason enough to boycott the entire conference? This means the only logical reason countries are pulling out is because they do not want any public discussion of Israeli policy in the Palestinian territory.

Admittedly early draft versions of the Durban 2 declaration were rabidly anti-Israel. The 3 March version found by Ha’aretz found that Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories constituted a “violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid”. However the final version I read this evening (Rev 2) contained no explicit mention of Israel at all. The commitment to avoid a just settlement in Palestine has trumped “the commitment to prevent, combat and eradicate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” The US and Australian position on human rights commitments has been shown up as a pious platitude and the boycott is shameful politicking.

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