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An insidious campaign has been underway to demonize the UN sponsorship of an anti-racist initiative to hold a one-day conference at the UN on September 22, 2021 that is a continuation of what has come to be known as the ‘Durban Process.’ This identifies the ongoing effort over the last twenty years to implement the Durban Declaration and the accompanying Program of Action that was adopted at the “World Conference Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance DURBAN” held in Durban, South Africa 20 years ago.
The Durban Conference was controversial even before the delegates convened, anticipated as a forum at which Israel, colonialism, the legacy of slavery, and victimization of vulnerable ethnicities would be depicted and condemned. It was formally under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, whose High Commissioner, Mary Robinson was put under pressure from the West to cancel the event. She refused, and instead of being praised for her independence, this highly principled former President of Ireland was denied support by Washington for reappointment to a second term as High Commissioner. Israel and the United States withdrew from the conference and boycotted smaller follow up events in 2009 and 2011, which explains why the forthcoming gathering is identified as Durban IV.
At the 2001 conference, which was overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which occurred just days after the close of Durban, there were many speeches delivered by representatives of various governments, including several that criticized Israel for racist policies and practices perpetrated against the Palestinian peoples, including the allegation that Zionism was a form of racism, which had previously been asserted in GA Resolution (see GA Res. 3379 passed by a vote of 72-35 with 32 abstentions, A/RES/3379, 10 Nov 1975; revoked in 1991 without explanation in GA Res. 46/96)). In addition to the inter-governmental Durban Conference there was a parallel NGO Forum devoted to the same agenda in which inflammatory speeches and declarations were made. Yet the overriding inspirational theme was provided by the successful struggle against apartheid in South Africa as both legitimating the event and the current need to address the long unfinished anti-racist agenda.
The Outcome at Durban
The main formal outcomes of the Durban Conference were two significant, comprehensive texts known as the Durban Declaration and the Durban Program of Action. The Durban Process subsequent to 2001 has been more or less exclusively concerned with the implementation of these two formal UN documents, which are wide spectrum depictions of a whole range of grievances arising from the mistreatment of various categories of vulnerable people by war of the enforcement of human rights law and through a variety of means including through education and the activism of civil society, NGOs, and even the private sector. There exists absolutely no basis for complaining that Israel has been singled out for criticism or that provisions of the conference documents can be fairly read as antisemitic or even anti-Israeli, yet as will be shown below, such a campaign has been relentlessly waged to discredit all that Durban stands almost exclusively because of its supposed extreme bias against Israel.
A fair reading of both documents would conclude that Israel actually been spared justifiable criticism, most probably as a result of pressures brought to bear on both the UN and media before and during the conference. If we look at the texts we come away with an impression that Israeli sensitivities were understood and respected. Apartheid and genocide were condemned in general terms, but without any negative reference to Israel, and in fact an inclusion that did single out Israel in a manner that it should have welcomed. In para. 58 of the Declaration we find the following assertion: “..we recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” And para. 61 takes note with “deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities.” It seems outright perverse to discredit the Durban Declaration as a screed against Jews.
In the course of the Declaration’s 122 paragraphs the Israel/Palestine situation is only mentioned in Para. 63, and then in a neutral manner that seems to overlook the deliberate victimization of the Palestinian people. It reads as follows: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.” What can possibly be offensive to even the most ardent Israeli supporter about such a provision, which is buried deep in a 30 page declaration in language that points no accusing fingers at Israel.
Israel’s Anti-Durban Campaign
And yet the reality of Durban, the violence of the language used to denounce these documents and the Durban Process seems extreme, and to emanate from sources known to follow closely the official line disseminated by Tel Aviv. British Colonel Richard Kemp writing on the notoriously right-wing website of the Gladstone Institute is rarely outdone in his backing of Israel’s use of force against defenseless Gaza. Kemp brands the Durban Process “as the UN’s infamous 20-year old showpiece vendetta against Israel” and pronounces his judgement that “Durban IV will re-energize this shameful process.” [“Fighting the Blight of Durban,” July 29, 2021] Kemp is comfortable invoking the hyperbolic language of UN Watch that absurdly labels Durban as “..the worst international manifestation of antisemitism in the post-war period.”
UN Watch separately expressed its venomous view of the Durban Process a month earlier in a news release under the grossly misleading headline, “Durban IV: Key Facts,” May 24, 2021, summarized by the phrase a “perversion of principles of anti-racism.” This characterization of Durban is made more concrete by asserting that it makes “…baseless claims against the Jewish people,” is used “to promote racism, intolerance, antisemitism and Holocaust denial…and to erode Israel’s right to exist.” This libelously false language of UN Watch should be compared with the texts of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, the implementation of which is the overriding goal of the Durban Process, to gain some insight into the dark motivations of these Israeli oriented critics.
2021- Israel and Apartheid
True enough as of 2021 there would be no way to avoid supposing that ‘the plight of the Palestinian people’ was a direct result of Israeli apartheid, which is not only condemned by the Durban process, but is firmly established as a crime against humanity in both the 1974 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court. It is no longer reasonable to dismiss allegations of Israeli apartheid as extremist, much less as manifestations of antisemitism. Yet because Israel, with U.S. support, still controls the mainstream discourse in the West, the media stares at such stark findings in stony silence despite the prolonged suffering of the Palestinian people—a convincing reminder that where geopolitics and morality/legality clash, geopolitics prevails.
Redeeming the Durban Process
There are two sets of observations that make these attacks on a laudable UN effort by way of Durban to highlight the many facets of racism and racial discrimination shameful and shameless. The Durban Process has become the core of a worldwide human rights campaign to increase public awareness and raise concerns within the UN as to the many varieties of racist criminality, as well as to underscore the responsibility of governments and the potential contributions of civil society activism.
It is notable that Israel and its behavior are not given nearly the attention in the Durban Declaration and Program of Action that such other issues as the abuse of indigenous peoples, Roma, migrants, and refugees. Indeed, in light of more recent developments that confirmed earlier concerns about Palestinian victimization the Durban Process, if anything, can be faulted for backgrounding Israel’s racism and falling into to the hasbara trap of imposing symmetrical responsibility on the oppressor and the victim, blaming both sides, precisely to foil the growing tendency of Israel’s organized support to play the antisemitic card as a growing tactic to deflect public attention away from a growing consensus that Israel operates as an apartheid state.
Perhaps, in the atmosphere of 2001 it was politically provocative to accuse Israel of racism and apartheid, although as I have tried to show, these allegations directed at Israel in the open debate at Durban were never followed up in the formal outcome of the Durban Conference. And as has made clear by its proponents, the Durban Process is primarily concerned with implementing the Durban Declaration and Program of Action. By 2021, what was provocative twenty years ago has become multiply confirmed by trustworthy and reliable detailed assessments, and indirectly endorsed by the Israeli Basic Law enacted by the Knesset in 2018. The highlights of this dynamic have taken place over the course of the last five years: –the release in March 2017 of an independent academic study sponsored by UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) that concluded that Israel’s policies and practices constituted overwhelming confirmation of allegations of apartheid [“The Practices of Israel toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid”;—the report of the Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem, “A regime of Jewish Supremacy from The Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid,” 12 Jan 2021—the Human Rights Report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, 27 April 2021.
It is no longer plausible to contend that associating Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people as antisemitic. As a Jew myself, I regard Israeli justifications for its behavior toward Palestine as the embodiment of antisemitic behavior, bringing discredit to the Jewish people.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).