UNITED NATIONS, Sep 7, 2011 (IPS) – A high-level meeting on racism, scheduled to take place later this month under the auspices of the General Assembly, is threatening to split the world body and trigger a North-South confrontation.
Expressing unfounded fears the meeting might turn out to be anti- Israel, several Western states, including Canada, Germany, the United States, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Austria, have indicated they will not participate in the meeting.
The boycott is the result of an intense campaign by Israel, which has branded the meeting "anti-Semitic" even before it could get off the ground.
Still, an overwhelming majority of the U.N.'s 193 member states – along with dozens of human rights activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – are expected to actively participate in the meeting, scheduled to take place on Sep. 22 during the 66th session of the General Assembly.
The Israeli government has objected to the meeting – the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) on racism – primarily on the grounds that it may single out the Jewish state for criticism for its discriminatory practices against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
A mass pro-Israeli rally against the high-level meeting – and also against U.N. statehood for Palestine which will come up during the General Assembly sessions this year – is to take place outside the United Nations on Sep. 21.
Joseph E. Macmanus, acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the U.S. State Department, was quoted as saying the United States will not participate in what he called "the Durban Commemoration" meeting.
Last December, the United States voted against the resolution establishing this event because "the Durban process included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we did not want to see that commemorated," he said.
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in the Department of History at Columbia University, told IPS it is not surprising that Israel should have been supported by the governments of Italy, the Netherlands, Canada and the Czech Republic, all of them right-wing and all hostile to Palestinian aspirations, in opposing an effort to commemorate a landmark event in the global struggle against racism.
"The incessant effort to smear the Durban conference by Israel and its allies is intended to distract attention from the systematic legalised discrimination which is inherent not only in the 44-year old occupation of the territories seized in 1967, but also in Israel's treatment of 20 percent of its own citizens who constitute the Arab minority," he added.
The upcoming meeting, also called Durban III, is the third review conference of the Durban Declaration, the second (Durban II) being held in Geneva in 2009.
Polly Truscott, Amnesty International's deputy representative at its office at the United Nations, told IPS, "We of course hope all governments will take part in Durban III and renew their efforts to implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA)."
She said true conviction in combating racism requires governments to be there, to stand up for what's right, and to reject forcefully what's objectionable.
"Governments need to demonstrate that, in spite of any political controversy around the commemoration, they'll remain committed to combating racism, including commitment to the DDPA," she declared.
Chris Toensing, executive director and editor of the Washington-based Middle East Report, told IPS that Israel's objection, as usual, will be that Israel is singled out for criticism in the Durban Declaration in a way that smacks of special animus for Israel among the drafters and, by extension, the U.N. General Assembly.
He said Israel will not dispute the specific charge in the declaration, namely that Palestinians are under "foreign occupation" and therefore are denied many basic national and human rights.
"So the objection is a diversionary tactic meant to shift attention away from Israel's policies," he said.
That said, he pointed out, it is true the declaration does not name another specific location of race-based discrimination in the contemporary world.
At the least, the drafters made a tactical error here, if their intent was to help the Palestinian cause, because Israel's objection is technically sound, he added.
The Holocaust is the only specific example of genocide listed in the declaration, appearing after enslavement of Africans and colonialism as historical evils that the declaration seeks to redress.
"Though one might argue that the Holocaust, in scale and mechanisation, should indeed be considered sui generis, in the context of the declaration, the mention of the Holocaust appears to be an attempt to 'balance' the mention of Palestinian suffering," said Toensing.
By the same token, he argued, it is not clear why anti-Semitism or Islamophobia should be given specific mention, when there are so many other specific types of racial-religious prejudice in today's world.
Again, in the context of the mention of Palestine, this clause seems like more tactical "balancing".
In a letter to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, McManus of the State Department said: "We share your concern about the Durban commemorations timing and venue as just days earlier, we will have held solemn ten-year memorials for those murdered in the September 11 terrorist attacks."
In 2009, after working to try to achieve a positive, constructive outcome in the Durban Review Conference (Durban II), "we withdrew from participating because the conference reaffirmed the original 2001 Durban Declaration, which unfairly singled out Israel and included language inconsistent with U.S. traditions of robust free speech."
Toensing of the Middle East Report told IPS at Durban 2001, the Arab delegations were lobbied by black African Mauritanians to denounce slavery in Mauritania, a member of the Arab League.
The Mauritanians met with some resistance, and despite the Declaration's heavy focus on slavery, and enslavement of Africans in particular, there is no mention of any particular country where that vile practice persists. "Why not?" he asked.
It seems odd that a conference devoted to fighting racism would not "name and shame" practitioners of slavery, when slavery has so frequently been justified – and still is – on the basis of race, Toensing said.
For that matter, in the declaration, there is no "naming and shaming" related to any other manifestation of racism.
In sum, he argued, it would be smarter for future declarations to criticise "foreign occupations" of Palestine, Western Sahara and northernmost Cyprus – all recognised as such by the United Nations – so as to obviate complaints from one occupier or another that it is being singled out.
Meanwhile, a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) has accused the U.N. Secretariat of "sabotaging" the meeting on racism by upstaging it with a nuclear security summit scheduled for the same day.
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