EU welcomes changes to 'Durban II' draft

French human rights ambassador tells 'Post' Europe still undecided on whether to attend racism parley.

durban conference demo new 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
durban conference demo new 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
France and the EU view as positive the UN's decision to drop new references to Israel and defamation of religion from its draft declaration for next month's anti-racism conference, France's Ambassador for Human Rights Francois Zimeray told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. But Zimeray added that neither France nor the EU has decided whether to attend the event, dubbed Durban II, which is scheduled to be held April 20-24 in Geneva. The UN changed the draft text last Tuesday, after the EU threatened to boycott the Geneva parley, if these two issues had remained in the conference's final declaration. "The [previous] text was full of provocations, it was unacceptable. If it had not changed, we would have left [the conference]," said Zimeray. "For the first time, due to our firm position, there is no explicit mention regarding Israel or the Middle East; this is progress." Israel, which plans to boycott the conference, has taken a dim view of the change, because this latest version of the 2009 draft text still endorses the declaration made at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which took place in Durban, South Africa. That 2001 text singled out Israel, and the non-governmental groups that attended the event created such an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish atmosphere that the US and Israel walked out in protest. Fearful of a repeat of that conference, Italy, the US, Canada and Israel have all said that they do not plan to attend the 2009 event. But Zimeray told the Post he was hopeful in light of these changes that an acceptable text could be hammered out that would allow not just all the European states, but also Israel, Canada and the US to attend. At this stage, he said, it was important for Europe to remain engaged in the process so it could help resolve outstanding issues regarding the text. He was particularly encouraged to hear that members of the African and Latin American groups also supported the new text. It means that these more moderate countries were no longer being swayed by more extremist countries, Zimeray said. "It shows that when Europe has very firm language, this has a strong effect," he said. Zimeray cautioned, however, that "We remain in the process but that does not mean that we will attend; we have not yet taken a decision." The text at this stage is a still a draft and attempts could be made before the conference to reintroduce problematic statements on Israel or defamation of religion, through which Islamic states had tried to make criticism of religion a violation of human rights. Should this happen, he warned, "there is no doubt that we would leave." Zimeray, who is in charge of France's participation both in the preparatory stages for the conference and at the event itself, said it was not up to him to decide if France would attend. That choice, he said, would be made at the highest levels, such as the presidency or the foreign ministry. It's a similar process for the EU, which he said wants to have a common position on Durban II, but was not obliged to do so. When the text for 2009 is finalized, it is likely that the EU would accept an endorsement of the 2001's conference conclusions, said Zimeray. France and the EU endorsed it already in 2001, "so it would be quite strange" if they refuted it in 2009. But the issue of how to judge Durban II is a complex one, given that the problem with the first conference had more to do with the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Western statements issued by the non-governmental organizations that gathered in Durban at the time, than it did with the actual formal written conclusions. France, and he believes the EU as well, was unhappy with that rhetoric but it was only in hindsight that it understood how dangerous it was, said Zimeray. Durban I, which ended on September 8, 2001, pre-dated two critical events, he said. The first was the assassination by suspected al-Qaida agents of the pro-Western opposition leader in Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Massoud, on September 9. The second occurred two days later, when al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four jets and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The recipe for these two anti-Western events "could have been written in the words that one heard in the demonstrations in the streets of Durban," he said. It was a laboratory of hatred that exploded in a very real and threatening way only days after the conference, he said. The UN has attempted to prevent a repeat of this poisonous atmosphere by holding the conference in Geneva, which has much stricter anti-racism laws than South Africa, and by limiting the list of non-governmental organizations that could attend, Zimeray said. The EU and France, he said, also set clear red lines about what would be acceptable and unacceptable behavior and rhetoric. One of those lines was the unfair singling out of Israel, he said, while the second was the language aimed at preventing criticism of religion. "The right to legitimate criticism and to address that to religion is something is a value that is deeply rooted in our past," said Zimeray. So it was a positive step that it now appears to have been taken out of the draft text, he said. When it comes to the Middle East, he said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a political and not a racist one, and therefore it had no place in a conference on racism. It was also problematic to solely focus on Israel out of all the countries in the world, said Zimeray, who is known as ardent supporter of Israel. "The world is full of human rights violations. There are countries where there are massive human rights abuses. To point a finger solely at one problem is to prevent a debate on all them," he said. "There are some countries who want to put Israel at the very heart of the debate and to turn the event into an anti-Israeli arena. This is something that we would not accept." Having said that, he said the reference to Israel in the Durban I text was mild and balanced compared to some of the paragraphs which countries such as Iran had unsuccessfully attempted to insert into the Durban II text. He said he understands that its continued inclusion was "not satisfying" to those who had hoped that Israel would not be singled out at all. But what, he asked, "should our attitude be to a text that is balanced and calls for peace in the region? I do not have an answer to that question. We are deliberating and discussing between us this subject." Every week, he said, France and the EU reevaluate their options. The last debate happened at the start of last week at the meeting of foreign ministers. "At the moment we decided to stay in the process," he said.