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Zionism and Racism, Again: Durban II

IIt took the Obama administration some time to get the full picture. But in the end it has apparently realized that U.S. participation in the United Nation’s Durban Review Conference on Racism, set for April 2009, otherwise known as Durban II, would be a fool’s errand. The first Durban confab held in South Africa, just before the events of September 11, 200l, should have been warning enough. A potentially serious discussion on the challenges of multi-ethnic societies was brazenly transformed into a show trial of Israel and the United States, prompting Secretary of State Colin Powell to lead the American delegation in a dramatic walkout.

After sampling the preparations for this misguided sequel in a mid-winter visit to Geneva, the American delegation had no good news to report. There were consultations galore with other states taking part in the Durban process, but the conceit that staying involved in the “process” could improve the outcome soon fell apart. The United States has been forced to announce, at least for the moment, that it will not have any part in the Durban follow-up unless a different agenda is put on the table.

Durban II is a diplomatic case of back to the future. The thinly disguised ambition of the participants is to rebrand the Israeli state as a criminal form of racism and apartheid. The other focus is to condemn “Islamophobia.” This neologism is not found in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is intended as a potent tool to limit the criticism of the political attitudes and behavior of Islamic states, as well as any critical exegesis of the teachings of Islam itself.

The maneuvering at Durban II has not taken place in a vacuum. Indeed, it has gained strength from a recent UN “reform” that ran off the rails. In 2005, Western governments proposed a new, and smaller, Human Rights Council, to replace the desultory meetings of the older UN Human Rights Commission. The hope was to have a Universal Periodic Review that would assure that all states were examined, and that rights-respecting regimes took part. But “agency capture” is a well-known phenomenon in any political setting, and a gallery of nasty regimes was elected to the Council through the bloc-voting and regional solidarity that pervades the UN. In this setting, Libya became chair of the committee, setting the agenda for the renewed Durban Conference, and Cuba, Iran, and Russia were among the vice-chairs.

In a sense, then, the misspent energies of the new Human Rights Council have made Durban II largely redundant, even from the viewpoint of the most severe critics of Israel. For the last three years, the UN Human Rights Council has made Israel its obsessive focus. Special sessions are called, and special rapporteurs are regularly dispatched with one-sided missions to address the allegations mounted against the Jewish state. Though each country will eventually undergo a three-hour review of its own in the Universal Periodic Review process, these are as often filled with speeches of congratulation as cogent criticism. With Israel as the placeholder for the Council’s spare time, there is little reason to address the repression in Burma, or the civil war in Sri Lanka, or the unchecked cholera epidemic and government violence in Zimbabwe, or the political violence in Kenya.

Alas, this age-old trend has not been mitigated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The recent incumbents in that office have had to battle the Council’s tendentious attempts to control the budget and operations of the High Commissioner’s own office. Indeed, the regional groups of the South have lately demanded, in a General Assembly resolution pushed by Cuba, that even the independent treaty bodies—composed of law professors and human rights experts—should adopt regional quotas for their elections modeled on the regional quotas of the Council.

In addition, a thick fog of political correctness wafts through the air of Geneva, and any attempt to counter a substantive criticism of Israel risks being seen as plainly uncivilized. With a singular focus on the desired end of ejecting Israel from the occupied territories, or perhaps from the Levant altogether, these same circles are loathe to suppose that a member state of the United Nations has any right to use military force to defend its own citizens against the violence of an insurgency. Meanwhile, the states that dominate the Human Rights Council also take the view that the ordinary rules of warfare do not apply to a group that is fighting for national liberation, despite the clear statement of the 1977 First Geneva Protocol that the rules of war are universal. The High Commissioners have, of late, come to their jobs from prior posts as UN war crimes prosecutors. At the beginning of the last two conflicts involving Israel, the Commissioner’s office issued statements that proclaim the criminal misuse of force by one side, even before there was an investigation of facts on the ground.

There is no question that the Palestinian people have suffered mightily over the last half century. Or that some actions taken by Israel have added to that suffering. But what has gone badly for the Palestinians in the relationship with Israel also reflects what has gone wrong in the Arab world—where nondemocratic and unstable regimes act as the picadores in the bullfight. In settings such as the United Nations, the dilemmas of Palestinians and Jews serve as a diversion from the problems of misgovernment and instability that plague Arab states, a goad to conflict rather than a solution. And the diplomatic sideshow diminishes the chances of success for moderate Palestinian leaders, who must compete with the more flamboyant and publicized radical elements that regard perpetual struggle as a way of life.

The tedious bias in the preparatory sessions for the Durban conference has now become available to a wide audience through technology like YouTube. The eye of the video camera has also exposed the repetitive fusillades launched by the Human Rights Council in its other sessions. The live performance is no improvement. The confusion of halls, meeting rooms, and odd-numbered doors in the sprawling box-shaped UN facilities at the Palais des Nations, serves as a reminder that this is often an organization of avoidance and arrangement. The waters of Lake Geneva set an appropriate backdrop for intermezzo diplomats taking a coffee on the veranda and in the lounges, trading favors and campaigning for election to other councils or committees. Protest groups and human rights organizations occasionally assemble on the plaza outside the UN grounds. But inside, there is torpor.



These tiresome proceedings dramatize the organization’s diminishment since the grandeur of its fight for freedom in the Second World War. The name of the United Nations was first coined in 1942, when the United States and its allies proudly declared that no state threatened by Nazi aggression would make a separate peace with the fascist regimes. One for all, and all for one, they would fight onward, until Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito yielded in an unconditional surrender.

The early years of the United Nations featured the ennobling tale of escape from colonialism. Since then, the ideas of universal human rights and, more recently, the world’s “responsibility to protect,” have lifted the hearts of the oppressed. But there was a forgotten fracture in the colonial past that gave rise to a fatal bargain, and its implications have been felt ever since. During the long period when South African blacks fought against apartheid, the African National Congress sought help from other states of Africa and the Middle East. The quid pro quo demanded by the Islamic states was a promise of reciprocal help against Israel, in its sovereign territory and in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The trope characterizing Israel as an apartheid state, so much a part of the Durban II preparations, has its origin in this history and exchange.

With the bullhorn of the UN cheerleading the charge, the dominant leitmotif of the international left is the claim that the state of Israel is, in its essence, an irreducible form of apartheid and racism. This conclusion encompasses all of Israel, not simply the land occupied in the 1967 war. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, and its incorporation in a legally binding League of Nations mandate in 1922 that promised a Jewish national home in Palestine, is ignored in this logic of equivalence. The inconceivable moral failure of the 1938 Evian Conference, also held on the shores of Lake Geneva, in which no states were willing to provide a refuge for Jews fleeing the persecutions of Nazi Germany, also is cast aside. The peacekeeping failure of the United Nations in 1948—seen in the Security Council’s unwillingness to enforce the partition lines of General Assembly Resolution 181 after the Arab armies attacked—is dismissed. The unwillingness of Arab states to permit Palestinian refugees to integrate into their own economies is airbrushed from contemporary history.

Oddly, the UN has failed to take heed of a more optimistic analogy to South Africa—namely, the harmonious transition to a democratic peace in 1994 achieved through the leadership of Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk. Those who insist that Israel is an apartheid state do not conceive that there could be any peaceful coexistence in a negotiated two-state solution in the Middle East.

There is another forgotten corner of United Nations history that provides a ghostly frame for the current debates on the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians. The first attempt to hijack the issue of racial equality was made by the Soviet Union in 1964, when Moscow was seeking new Arab allies. At the time, UN diplomats assigned to the Third Committee of the General Assembly were tasked to complete a text for a new human rights treaty on racial and ethnic discrimination, later to be called the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The so-called CERD treaty was finished in 1965, and took effect in 1969. The United States joined the treaty in 1978 and it now has 172 parties.

But in 1964, unaware of Russia’s intention, the United States innocently attempted to add the phrase “anti-Semitism” to the list of discriminatory acts and motives forbidden by the Convention—a prophetic gesture, as it were. The Soviet representative retorted that if anti-Semitism was to be on the list, then Zionism must also be proscribed. Sensing that the matter was out of control, the U.S. representative agreed to withdraw the issue of anti-Semitism in exchange for the Soviets’ withdrawal of the discussion of Zionism.

But an arrow had been added to the quiver of the Soviets and their allies in the Middle East. In June 1975, the Russians revived the idea of using a United Nations platform to assault Zionism, with Cuba acting as its legislative whip among the newly independent states. At a Mexico City meeting of the so-called “World Conference of the International Women’s Year,” Cuba proposed and pushed through a resolution that “international co-operation and peace require the achievement of national liberation and independence, the elimination of colonialism and neo-colonialism, foreign occupation, Zionism, apartheid and racial discrimination in all its forms.” The Organization of African Unity followed suit in their July-August meeting, stating in a resolution that “the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure.” The Non-Aligned Movement chose yet the same meme at its August meeting in Asia.

Thus, at the opening of the 1975 United Nations General Assembly in New York, the voting delegates from the South were primed and ready to pass the infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution, confounding the United States, which has never learned to use regional caucuses associated with the UN with this degree of skill. The eloquence of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, protesting in the General Assembly as the U.S. ambassador, could not stop the crime from being committed.

The infamous resolution was formally repealed in 1991. But for most of the delegations preparing Durban II at Geneva, there has been no learning. This dreary remnant of the Cold War, which exploited the region to sinister effect, remains the once, future, and always Resolution.

Ruth Wedgwood teaches international law at Johns Hopkins University and is a member of the Hoover Institution’s task force on law and national security.

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