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Who's afraid of the Durban review?

By Curtis Doebbler, April 21, 2009

Even on such egregious subjects as racism, there are always some who defend the intolerable.

Between 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 Arabophobia.

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.
The 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.
It 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.
Western European 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.
As a 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 themselves.

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.

Even the 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 ignored.

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.
Israel, 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 per day.

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 struggle

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.
Together 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 Conference”.

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.
The writer is an international human rights lawyer and professor of law at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.




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