UN rights chief slams Durban II critics

Israel and Jewish groups feel they did a good job, but remain worried about longer-term implications.

Pillay UN rights gaza 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Pillay UN rights gaza 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel and pro-Israel groups congratulated themselves for having averted an anti-Semitic disaster at the United Nations anti-racism conference, which ended Saturday in Geneva, even as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay issued a fiery attack Friday against those who had tried to derail the event. In a statement that appeared aimed at Israel and pro-ISrael non-governmental groups - though she did not mention them by name - Pillay told reporters in Geneva that in the run-up to the event, she "had to face a widespread and highly organized campaign of disinformation." In particular, she took issue with those who called the conference a "hate-fest" or labeled as anti-Semitic the parley's final outcome document, which ratified the text of the 2001 UN anti-racism conference held in Durban, South Africa. "Many people, including ministers with whom I spoke, told me that the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, which as you know was agreed [on] by 189 states at the original World Conference Against Racism in 2001, was anti-Semitic. It was clear that either they had not bothered to read what it actually said, or they were putting a cast on it that was, to say the least, decidedly exaggerated," Pillay said. "Many others have labeled the entire Durban process as a 'hate fest.' We have had some rough moments in the process, but a 'hate fest?' I'm sorry, this is hyperbole. It is a gross exaggeration," she said. In the year leading up to the conference, dubbed Durban II, Israel and pro-Israel groups embarked on a campaign to urge countries to boycott the event out of fear that it would repeat the venomous anti-Semitic atmosphere that dominated Durban I. Israel and eight other countries, including the United States and Germany, boycotted last week's conference in part because the 2001 text, which was reaffirmed in Geneva, singled out only Israel and placed its conflict with the Palestinians within the context of a racial document. The 2009 document itself does not refer to Israel or the Middle East, with the exception of one clause that speaks broadly about foreign occupation. There had been some fear during the week of a last-minute attempt by countries such as Libya to insert anti-Israel language into the text, but as the conference drew to an end, no such language had been introduced. On Friday, Germany sent the conference a message approving the final outcome document. Israel, pro-Israel organizations and UN lobby groups that opposed the document, and thus the conference, continued to object to the text, even while acknowledging that it could have been worse and that many gains had been made in Geneva. They listed as victories the elimination over the past several months of anti-Israel language from the text; the absence of blatant anti-Semitic street demonstrations of the type that had taken place at Durban I; and the walkout staged by 23 European countries when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the eradication of Zionism during a speech on the event's first day. The Czech Republic also withdrew from the conference at that point. Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, said that in many ways Israel had attained success at the conference, even though it had failed to achieve some of its objectives. "Usually Israel is isolated at the UN," said Leshno-Yaar, who often finds himself fighting a losing battle in defending Israel before the UN's Human Rights Council. This time it was part of a group of countries that sought to shield the process from being hijacked by radicals. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, said his group appreciated "that the outcome text, however unacceptable, is the least toxic to have emerged in a long time from a UN conference on racism, thanks only to the red lines firmly asserted by several Western democracies." He said that Pillay, the world body's top official responsible for human rights, should thank those countries, as well as NGOs that worked for the omission of problematic clauses. Betty Ehrenberg of the World Jewish Congress also praised those who had worked to keep the conference on track. "We prevented it from being worse than Durban I," she said. Still, Ehrenberg added, placing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a document on racism could criminalize Israeli actions and expose it to legal charges of racism. Other Jewish activists said they were concerned that referencing Israel in a document about racism was a back-handed way of legitimizing the comparison of Zionism to racism. As proof that the reference to the Middle East conflict in the Durban I document could be so interpreted, the BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Refugee Rights referred to it in a speech Friday to the conference. "The first outcome document identified the Palestinian people as one group of victims of racism and racial discrimination," BADIL said. The Europe Third World Center equated Zionism with racism when it addressed the conference on Thursday, and on Monday, Ahmadinejad called Zionism "flagrant racism." Upon hearing his words, many of those in the hall applauded. Raphael Haddad, president of the French Union of Jewish Students, said the presence of Ahmadinejad at an anti-racism conference called into question the whole purpose of the event. "For anybody involved in fighting against racism, this conference was just a big circus," he said. Haddad's group was ejected from the conference after some of its members, wearing multicolored wigs, threw red clown noses at the Iranian leader during his speech. But Pillay, who herself had issued a sharp condemnation of Ahmadinejad's speech, even as she defended his right to address the assembly, said that the 2009 document had a number of positive statements that should counter any charges of anti-Semitism. "If people actually read the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, they would have realized that it includes a paragraph which says that 'the Holocaust should never be forgotten,'" she said. "It includes two paragraphs that denounce 'anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,' and one paragraph [from the 2001 text] which mentions the suffering of the Palestinians, their right of self-determination and the security of all states, including Israel, and two paragraphs calling for peace." She added that this was "all there is on the Middle East" in the document. In spite of this, she said, "the propaganda machine" had started "to wind up to term this conference a failure, a hate fest and all the rest of it." Pillay added that newspapers, particularly those in the US, had been loath to check facts regarding the text and in some cases refused op-eds she sent them. Some opponents of the conference, she said, had called her the "dangerous High Commissioner for Human Rights" and "ludicrous High Commissioner for Human Rights." She added that as a result of a campaign "that was so determined to kill the conference, some countries decided to boycott it, although a few days earlier, they had actually agreed on what is now the final text. I consider this bizarre." Pillay concluded by saying, "No one has really written up the true story of this conference - a strange, rough-and-tumble affair full of smoke and mirrors, I must admit, yet very definitely a success story." AP contributed to this report.