Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Who's afraid of the Durban review?
By Curtis Doebbler
ccun.org, April 21, 2009
Even on such egregious subjects as
racism, there are always some who defend the intolerable.
20-24 April 2009 the world will take either an important step forward
towards prohibiting discrimination, especially racial discrimination, or an
unfortunate step backwards, if governments are unwilling to confront or even
to discuss the core issues. Which way the international community will go
will depend largely on the activities of states, and to a lesser extent
civil society, participating in the Durban Review Conference to be held at
the UN European headquarters in Geneva.
This conference is likely to
be the most important human rights meeting in years, testing the resolve of
the international community to confront discrimination happening today as
well as the damage done by past discrimination. The conference could be a
turning point in the struggle against prejudices and practices behind so
many protracted international conflicts. It could send the message that the
governments of the world understand their past mistakes and are willing to
turn the page and confront racism and other forms of discrimination head on.
In particular, the Durban Review Conference is an opportunity to
recognise that conflicts like that of Palestine — the longest standing
unresolved serious human rights problem on the UN’s agenda, Iraq — where
well over a million people have lost their lives due to a war and occupation
based on attitudes of superiority, and Rwanda — where genocide was carried
out by inciting racial hatred, can be more constructively addressed if we
view the people affected without discriminatory attitudes.
And it is
also an opportunity to recognise that there are new forms of discrimination
emerging that are insidious and fast spreading, such as Islamophobia and
Perhaps most of all, the Durban Review Conference will
be a chance for North and South, East and West, Christians, Jews, Muslims
and people of all denominations and faiths to express their belief in the
principles of equality and non-discrimination. If our governments can come
together and make such an express commitment with proper mechanisms proposed
to follow it up with action, then the Durban Review Conference could be a
significant turning point for many people in the world.
conference comes at the start of the administration of the first black
president in the history of the United States, Barack Obama. It is perhaps
the best chance he will have during his presidency to express his and his
country’s commitment to combating racism and other forms of discrimination
around the world. Such an opportunity could breathe new life into his words
calling for global cooperation and American moral leadership.
also occurs as indigenous peoples in many states are increasing in
prominence after so many years colonial discriminatory polices. Australia
has publicly apologised for its mistreatment of indigenous peoples and
Bolivia has guaranteed their basic human rights in a new constitution.
It is also the first major human rights conference in which the
international community will be able to reaffirm its commitment to
non-discrimination since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples and the International Convention on the Protection and
Promotion of the Rights and Dignity of Persons with Disabilities.
In short, the Durban Review Conference is an opportunity that may not arise
again for many years, but it is also one that may be easily lost.
Lost opportunity already?
While the Durban Review Conference could achieve so much, it could also
be a flop. One reason is that some states and organisations do not want to
confront past discrimination or deal with the most pressing contemporary
problems of discrimination in the world today.
states supported by the United States and Canada have complained that the
Palestine should not be mentioned; that only contemporary forms of slavery
should be addressed, and that no special attention should be drawn to
discrimination against Muslims. They have even threatened not to come to the
table to negotiate these issues unless the other side — the overwhelming
majority of states — first agrees to meet their demands.
result of the majority of states trying to meet the demands of a minority,
an originally 55-page final statement to be adopted at the Durban Review
Conference has been trimmed to about 16 pages. The bulk of the snipping was
done by the Russian chair of the working group tasked with drafting the
final statement. While allegedly the result of broad consultations, the
chair’s draft is a major concession to the concerns of the Western European
states and the United States.
The informal draft text of the chair
suddenly appeared on the front page of the UN Human Rights High
Commissioner’s website, while previous versions that were the result of
months of labour and negotiations by states were buried and almost
impossible to find. Gone from the final statement is any reference to
Palestine. Unusually, the Palestinian delegation itself supported removing
any reference their peoples’ plight. This move surprised some Arab diplomats
who were left wondering whether the cause they had championed for as long as
the UN has existed was perhaps no longer of concern to the Palestinians
Also gone was any reference to the responsibility of
states to apologise for, redress, and provide reparations and compensation
to the victims of centuries of slavery. This language was replaced by a
trite reference to contemporary problems of slavery.
contentious reference to defamation of religion, which the 57 states of the
Organisation of the Islamic Conference had initially championed, has now
disappeared. In its place is language that reiterates what has already been
accepted by over 150 states in Article 20 of the International Covenant of
Civil and Political Rights.
Still, the stubborn minority of states
claim that they need more concessions and they are still threatening not to
attend the conference. What more could this minority of states want from a
meeting that is being called to review the commitments made in the 2001
Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, aimed to fight racism and other
similar forms of discrimination?
The real target
The answer appears to be the very heart and soul of the conference
itself. The United States, for example, is asking that wording referring to
the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action be removed from any
statement to be adopted in Geneva. Such astounding audacity smacks of the
same arrogance that characterised the former Bush administration from which
Obama has publicly attempted to distance himself.
In 2000, just weeks
before the adoption the Millennium Development Goals Declaration, then US
Ambassador to the UN John Bolton tried to have references to the Millennium
Development Goals removed from the document. Observers accused him of
arrogantly trying to sabotage a process that he knew little about and in
which he had not participated. Indeed, Bolton seemed ignorant of the months
of painstaking negotiations that had gone into agreeing to a document to be
signed by so many world leaders. In the event, Bolton’s attempts were
The United States seems to have learned little from these
past experiences and is on the verge of repeating them again in the Durban
Review Conference. By doing so the United States is threatening to turn a
golden opportunity into a public relations disaster, branding America’s
first black president as a supporter of discrimination or at best too
cowardly to take strong action against this scourge. While it is
incomprehensible that Obama, having broken through American race barriers,
would undermine one of the most important principles for which he stands, it
is not surprising that others oppose the Review Conference.
the countries it has sway over and the NGOs it supports, has also protested
the meeting. This is more understandable given the fact that Israel has for
more than 60 years exercised occupation authority over Palestine in a manner
that two successive UN experts have deemed akin to “apartheid”. Almost
two-dozen years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, that Israel
continues such practices against Palestinians is perhaps the best expression
of why we need such a Review Conference and why it must address serious
contemporary problems such as Palestine.
If the Durban Review
Conference addresses Israel’s discrimination it might contribute towards
ending this still existing example of apartheid present in the world. If it
doesn’t, that apartheid regime can expect to be able to continue violating
Palestinian human rights perhaps for many years.
Similarly, if the
Durban Review Conference addresses the legacies of slavery, this might
contribute not only towards ending contemporary forms of slavery, but also
towards redressing the broader array of contemporary forms of exploitation
that that force half the people in the world to live on less than two Euros
And if the increasing incidents, policies and practices
based on discrimination against Arabs and Muslims are addressed we might be
spared more serious attacks on these peoples.
The terrain of
For the Durban Review Conference to achieve even a degree of success in
these areas of concern, civil society will have to make its voice heard as
it did in Durban in 2001.
In Durban, South Africa, thousands of
civil society representatives participated in a NGO Forum that was supported
in part by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The
NGOs also produced a powerful NGO Declaration and Programme of Action. This
instrument was cause for concern for apologists of human rights violations.
The NGO instrument called for stronger language on almost every issue
ranging from anti-Semitism to Israel’s policies of apartheid in Palestine.
States and NGOs that oppose to the Durban Review Conference for
reasons already mentioned have gone to great lengths to prevent meaningful
civil society participation in upcoming conference. These efforts have
reached such proportions that OHCHR has been wittingly or unwittingly drawn
into the fray. Indeed, OHCHR has made little effort to support an NGO Forum,
citing misconceived complaints about the 2001 NGO Forum that had helped
shape the agenda at the Durban conference against racism.
with opposing NGOs, some UN officials have cited the activities of a few
NGOs they allege were at the 2001 NGO Forum and who allegedly expressed
themselves inappropriately. In reality, they are referring to the fact that
some NGOs protested against Israel’s continuing human rights violations
against the Palestinians.
The fact that the Durban Review
Conference will be hosted in Geneva has also made it more difficult for
civil society to participate. The Swiss government, for example, is known
for being selective in the provision of visas. Even if an NGO gets a visa,
the cost of travel to and staying in Geneva can be prohibitive, especially
to NGOs that come from the global South. Furthermore, the UN itself has not
been welcoming, with senior officials threatening NGOs with longstanding
accreditation with being “prevented from participating in the Durban Review
Despite these obstacles some NGOs have struggled to
arrange an NGO orientation at the Geneva International Conference Centre
from 15-17 April, an NGO Forum on 18-19 April, and a conference on Palestine
on 18-19 April. NGOs have also begun caucusing with their colleagues in
Geneva and internationally to consider strategies for ensuring that the
Geneva gathering not only reiterates what was accomplished in Durban in
2001, but makes concrete efforts at expanding on those efforts.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed by some — mostly NGOs objecting to
mention of Israel’s discrimination against Palestinians — who have organised
a counter-Durban Review Conference meeting on 19 April and who plan a
demonstration to distract attention away from the official conference the
week it is held.
These clashes over the struggle against racism and
other forms of discrimination will be on public display in Geneva 20-24
April. More importantly, the outcome of these clashes will be an indicator
of where we stand today. It would be ironic, if not tragic, if in these days
of so visible an advance as the election of the first black US president
that the world fails again to speak powerfully and honestly about racism and
similar forms of discrimination that so many continue to face.
writer is an international human rights lawyer and professor of law at An-Najah
National University, Nablus, Palestine.