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Jewish Journal

Opinion: Durban’s 10th anniversary is no cause for celebration

by Daniel S. Mariaschin, JTA

September 12, 2011 | 12:10 pm

Daniel Mariaschin

Daniel Mariaschin

Which nation doesn’t let women drive? Jails dissenters by the thousands? Beheads minors? Attacks civilians living peacefully in a neighboring nation? Persecutes homosexuals? Executes children? Encourages “honor killings”?

Unfortunately, quite a few nations can be plugged in as correct answers. But not Israel.

Yet Israel was the sole focus of a global racism conference that took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Ten years later that conference — perhaps the most open display of anti-Israel hatred ever to take place at a United Nations forum — is slated to be remembered and celebrated in New York this month.

As B’nai B’rith International President Allan Jacobs, who will head our NGO delegation to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly this month, put it, “This celebration represents the world body’s failure to prevent the Durban process from realizing its original objectives: to discuss and combat the horrific racism and widespread intolerance that plagues many regions throughout the world.”

The 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, also known as the Durban Conference, degenerated into such a hate fest of baseless and politically motivated Israel bashing that B’nai B’rith delegates—the Jewish community’s largest representation there—along with the U.S. representative, Israeli leaders and other nongovernmental organizations of good conscience walked out in protest.

The original mission of the conference was worthwhile, laudable and highly necessary as combating global racism and intolerance is key to a more tolerant and peaceful global community. However, when this noble mission was hijacked by groups with a myopic worldview—groups that can see no wrong in nations with truly egregious human rights violations but find fault with the very existence of the Jewish state—the original conference was discredited and became devoid of meaning.

The follow-up Durban Review Conference of 2009 held in Geneva unfortunately was no better. High-level representatives to the review conference used the podium to negate the Holocaust and lambast Israel. A number of countries and Jewish NGOs again took part in a massive walkout to protest the proceedings as well as the hatred espoused by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The anti-Israel sentiments embraced in the original conference were baselessly reaffirmed in Geneva.

As B’nai B’rith said in a statement delivered by honorary president Richard Heideman to the United Nations Durban Review Conference in April 2009, “In summary, Mr. Chairman, we do not believe that a single victim of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia will have reason to find solace from this process filled with pious declarations of intent.”

Syria, Sudan, Iran, Rwanda and Zimbabwe are just a few examples of nations with deplorable human rights records and continuing systemic gross human rights violations that cry out for global attention. Nonetheless it is Israel—a true democracy—that singularly receives all the blame and all the wrongful attention of her opponents in the world.

The systematic human rights violations in countries such as Syria are where a conference to combat racism and intolerance should be focused rather than upon Israel, which respects the rule of law.

How is it possible that this U.N. process still disproportionately makes reference to Israel while putting on the sidelines states that conduct official policies of racial discrimination? The blinkered focus manages to ignore Israel’s record as a democracy with a myriad list of contributions.

Cutting-edge medical technology emanates from Israel and benefits the world. Israeli doctors treat thousands of Palestinian and Arab patients each year from multiple locations without regard to religion or national origin. Israel helps the world stay connected via its leading-edge communications inventions and innovations. Israel could easily be considered among the world’s first first-responders, often reacting faster to global natural disasters than nations that are bigger and closer.

Nevertheless, the U.N.’s revalidation of the anti-Israel focus and outcome of the original conference undermines its credibility as an overseer of global racism and rights.

It is encouraging that Durban is increasingly being recognized for the biased conference it proved to be; more and more nations are declaring that they will sit out any commemoration of Durban. Most recently, Austria, Australia and Germany joined such nations as Canada, Israel, the United States, the Czech Republic, Italy and The Netherlands, among others, in declaring that they will forego events related to “celebrating” Durban, a conference which deserves no celebration.

The message sent is that politics needs to be relegated to the margins in any remembrances of Durban.

There is some chance for a more positive outcome this time around. Some reports indicate that efforts have been made to excise the political references that single out Israel. However, there is no guarantee that the event will be anything other than more of the same.

It is the sincere wish, a decade on, that things will be different. The United Nations must return to the crucial business that the original conference never ended up addressing—focusing on how to end racism and intolerance, and making the world better for the truly oppressed and for those who truly have no voice.

Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, which has been accredited as a U.N. NGO since 1947.

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