Durban Conference: Civil Society Smashes Up
Durban Conference: Civil Society Smashes Up
by David Matas
(A Report on the NGO Forum against Racism, August 28 to September 1, 2001 and the World Conference Against Racism, August 31st to September 8th, 2001, Durban, South Africa.)
What is civil society when it stops being civil? That question was posed by the NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum against Racism at Durban in August 2001. The Forum preceded by three days and overlapped by two the intergovernmental World Conference Against Racism.
The NGO Forum and the intergovernmental World Conference were held at neighbouring venues. The Forum was held in tents set up outside and within the oval of the Durban Kingsmead Cricket Grounds. The Conference was held across the street at the Durban International Convention Centre.
Nongovernmental forums have been paralleling intergovernmental forums for decades. They are a lobbying opportunity, a chance to present an unofficial perspective, a reality check, the presentation to the media and the world of more than just the official line.
However, despite their extensive history, each new forum is a new experience. The non-governmental world is, by its nature, not institutionalised. Any group of individuals anywhere and for any purpose can form a nongovernmental organization. Along with the few, well established, well known organizations, there are thousands of organizations that represent just a few individuals and a very specific cause. Each new NGO forum is a new anarchy.
The nongovernmental world is impoverished. Financing is threadbare. Insofar as money can solve organizational problems, it is a solution not ready at hand.
There have been attempts to produce some order out of the chaos. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has an NGO liaison office, now headed by Laurie Wiseberg, that tries to provide some back up support to NGOs. However, there are not many people that make a business of attending international NGO forums. Each gathering throws up a whole new crowd, focused on its issues and little aware either how to organize an NGO forum or to function within one. The befuddled lead the bewildered.
In the past, despite the mayhem, participants in the fora have managed to muddle through. Goodwill has managed to overcome the obstacles of disorganization and miscommunication.
The Durban NGO Forum presented a whole new experience, a landmark for the NGO world, an event of significance beyond the confines of the fight against racism. The Durban NGO forum was plagued by a group of NGOs who had a political agenda, not a human rights agenda, and who were willing to stop at nothing to realize that agenda. Goodwill was not at hand to put order into the disarray. Rather, the inexperience of the organizers, and the absence of both clear rules and institutional structures meant that those with a political agenda were able to turn the NGO Forum away from human rights and to their own agenda.
The planned end product of the World Conference was a declaration and program of action to combat racism. The NGO Forum organizers decided to attempt to produce their own Declaration and Program of Action in order to influence the development of the intergovernmental document. Even if there had been clear rules and an experienced organization for the NGO Forum, such an attempt would have been fraught with difficulties. The nongovernmental community does not speak with one voice, and sometimes speaks with conflicting voices. Consensus is rare.
To compound their difficulties, the organizers of the NGO Forum decided to include in the Declaration and Program of Action the voices of the victims, speaking about their victimization. The trouble with that notion is that, in times of war, both sides typically see themselves as the victims and their enemies as perpetrators.
A plan to produce a consenus declaration and program and action which gave a voice to the victims would require victims on both sides of a war divide to agree. Otherwise, the document would be internally contradictory or, to avoid the contradiction, one set of victim voices would be stilled.
When, on top of all that, the rules were not clear and the organization was a shambles, an attempt to produce a NGO declaration and program of action became an invitation to disaster. In such a situation it was all too easy for a declaration and program of action to become the voice not of the many, but of a few, the wildest and most determined extremists.
The nongovernmental world is no holier that the governmental world. Powerlessness does not sanctify. What distinguishes governments from nongovernmental organizations, aside from money and power, is the range of interests. Governments are multi-faceted, inevitably trying to juggle a number of different interests or causes simultaneously. Nongovernmental organizations have the luxury of specialization. They can and do devote themselves to only one cause or a small number of causes. (I am repeating myself here. I earlier made this point in the book No More: The Battle against Human Rights Violations published by Dundurn Press in 1994 at page 206.)
However, there is nothing inherent in the worthiness of the causes of non-governmental organizations. Non-governmental organizations are as likely to preach human rights violations as human rights, as likely to resort to violence and incitement to violence as governments are. Non-governmental organizations are, after all, like governments, just people, and often the same people on their way into or out of government.
Nongovernmental human rights organizations have the luxury of an exclusive focus on human rights that governments can not afford. Nongovernmental political organizations are more easily obsessed by the monomania of their political causes than governments. Governments are brought face to face with reality when they attempt to put their ideas into practice. Nongovernmental political ideologists can live in a fantasy world of their own imaginations.
There has been a tendency for nongovernmental human rights organizations to focus on abuses by governments. The explanation for this focus is, in part, historical. The nongovernmental human rights movement arose during the Cold War when governments in the East were totalitarian and client governments of the West were authoritarian. Governments were strong and opposition groups were weak.
Now, big brother has been replaced by little brother. Instead of communist regimes in the East and national security regimes in the West, we have state collapse and fragmentation, free for alls where war lords, terrorists and the mafia reign, too little government rather than too much.
The nongovernmental human rights world has been slow to adapt to this changing reality. Human rights NGOs are so used to mobilizing civil society to call governments to account that they find it hard to grapple with threats to human rights from the nongovernmental world. Human rights NGOs have seen other nongovernmental organizations as potential allies in the struggle for human rights, rather than potential threats to respect for human rights.
Human rights NGOs have learned to be suspicious of governments that mouth the human rights vocabulary and do little else. Governmental human rights hypocrisy is easily identified and condemned. These same human rights NGOs have been far less likely to scrutinize the incantation of human rights platitudes by political nongovernmental organizations.
The naivete and misdirection of human rights NGOs have created an opportunity for political NGOs. Political activists who have little regard for human rights use human rights discourse to discredit and delegitimize their opponents. They turn to human rights NGOs to endorse their cause, asking human rights NGOs to condemn their opponents as human rights violators. Human rights NGOs, as often as not, have been blind to this political manipulation and have bought into the agenda of those political movements which use the proper human rights vocabulary.
Political NGOs are sometimes nongovernmental in name only. Human rights NGOs are reluctant to take money from governments, for fear that it might compromise their independence. Political NGOs are not as reluctant, and are often financed by sympathetic governments. GONGOs, government organized NGOs, have been a traditional feature of communist regimes, but they proliferate wherever repression is found.
The turmoil of NGO forums, the naivete of human rights NGOs, and the fixations of politicized NGOs all came together in Durban to produce a witches brew. The atmosphere was poisoned and so was the result. The source of the mess, unsurprisingly, was politics in the Middle East.
II. The Palestinian Initiative
In the war between Palestinians and Israelis, both sides see themselves as victims. Israelis see the Palestinians and their supporters as perpetrators, unwilling to accept the existence of the State of Israel and terrorising its population. Palestinians see Israel and the Jews as denying them their homeland and committing crimes against them to suppress their claim to that homeland.
The organized Jewish community did not even consider asking the World Conference Against Racism or the NGO Forum to endorse the view that the Palestinian Authority is intent on terrorism and violence and opposed to the peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict. The Palestinians, however, showed a good deal more nerve.
For the Palestinians, both the NGO Forum against Racism and the World Conference Against Racism became a continuation of the war against Israel by other means. Palestinians sought to have language included in both the NGO Forum and the intergovernmental World Conference Declaration and Program of Action that accused Israel of the worst crimes known to humanity - genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, colonialism, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.
Palestinian advocates attempted to appropriate the voice and victimization of the Jewish people by denying to them the use of the word "antisemitism" and "Holocaust". The draft intergovernmental declaration had the phrase "holocausts/Holocaust" in square brackets, meaning that the use of the word "Holocaust" in the singular with a capital "H" was in dispute. Anne Bayefsky, who attended the NGO Forum as a representative of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, in a presentation she gave to the Commission on Antisemitism at the Forum, said of this square bracketing that it questioned "the reality of Jews as the victims of the most heinous crimes committed against a people in history."
The word "antisemitism" was coined in the 19th century by William Marr of Germany to describe opposition to Jews and Judaism, and has consistently been used ever since as meaning hatred of Jews or discrimination against Jews. (See Lorne Shipman and Karen Mock "It’s time to end word games and combat racism" to be found at http://www.bnaibrith.ca/league/articles/km010913.html.) Yet, Palestinian advocates arranged to have inserted into the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action the words "anti-Arab racism is another form of antisemitism" and "Arabs as a Semitic people have also suffered from alternative forms of antisemitism" (paragraphs 46 and 79 of the NGO Forum Declaration).
The Palestinian Caucus called for the reintroduction of the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, the only UN resolution in the last fifty years that has been formally repealed, a resolution Secretary General Kofi Annan called "lamentable". He said: "Its negative resonance even today is difficult to overestimate."
The Palestinian Caucus asserted a non-existent Palestinian right of return and a called for a repeal of the Israeli Law of Return. (On the non-existence of the claimed Palestinian right of return see David Matas "Israel and the Palestinians: Myths and Realities" posted at http://www.bnaibrith.ca/institute/articles/dm010730.html.)
The purpose of all this was to delegitimize the State of Israel, to undercut its moral and legal foundation, to withdraw international support for its existence, to criminalize it. However, it is impossible to do all of that without attacking the Jewish people as well.
Zionism asserts the right to the self-determination of the Jewish people and the right to preserve their cultural identity. The Holocaust, though it left some Jews alive, completely extinguished the Yiddish shtetl culture in Europe. The survival of Israel is necessary today, not only to protect its Jewish residents from those who would drive Jews in the Middle East into the sea, but also for the cultural survival of the Jewish people. The end of the State of Israel would be a continuation of the Holocaust, a rejection of its human rights legacy, and an act of cultural genocide against the Jewish people everywhere.
The right to self-determination of a people does not always mean a right to statehood. However, it coalesces into a right to statehood whenever the rights of a people are violated in so gross and flagrant a manner that to expect the people to remain under the government of the perpetrators would be inhumane. [For the legal argument to support this assertion, see the Factum of the Applicant for Intervener Status, League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, in Reference re. the Secession of Quebec (1998) 2 S.C.R. 217.]
If ever a people has earned through its suffering the right to statehood, it is the Jewish people. Throughout history, racism and its victims were found everywhere, but the scale and scope of the "Final Solution" was unprecedented. So, it is anti-Zionism, rather than Zionism, that is a form of racism, a discriminatory denial to the Jewish people of a generally recognized right, the right to self determination.
The two most prevalent contemporary forms of antisemitism are Holocaust denial and anti-Zionism. Each is the attempt to kill the victims of the Holocaust a second time, Holocaust denial by obliterating their memory, anti-Zionism by obliterating their legacy.
Of the two, anti-Zionism is the more dangerous, because it is the more common. Holocaust denial is the preserve of the extreme right, the lunatic fringe. Anti-Zionism has become widely accepted in large parts of the world. Eliminationist anti-Zionism is as much a part of the Palestinian culture today as eliminationist antisemitism was part of the culture of Nazi Germany before World War II. Israel has become the Jew amongst nations, condemned for sins it has not committed and targeted for destruction.
It is, of course, legitimate to criticise specific Israeli practices and policies in the context of a global survey, country by country, of such practices and policies. The Jewish community does not take the position that criticism of policies and practices of Israel are beyond bounds. There are many legitimate criticisms that can be made and are being made every day of Israeli government policies and practices.
However, when Israel, virtually alone, is the target of such criticism, the targeting becomes political rather than principled. Selective criticism directed to Israel, when far worse offender countries are ignored, is a form of discrimination against both Israel and the Jewish people.
In any case, Palestinian advocates at Durban were little interested in criticising specific Israeli policies or practices. They seemed indifferent to getting specific policies of the Government of Israel changed. Rather they wanted the State of Israel, as a state for the Jewish people, to end.
The Jewish community is a survivor community, the remnants of the attempted extinction of the whole Jewish people in the Holocaust. To accuse falsely the Jewish state of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the very crimes inflicted on the Jewish community not that long ago, is to mock and ridicule their suffering. The charges themselves are hurtful, a trivialization of the victimization the Jewish community has suffered.
The accusations Palestinians made against Israel of a new form of apartheid were particularly brazen, given that the World Conference and the NGO Forum against Racism were being held in South Africa, the home of the victims of apartheid. There is no resemblance whatsoever between true apartheid and the State of Israel.
Basic to apartheid was the denationalization of blacks, because they were black, and allocation of nationality in state created bantustans or homelands. Blacks assigned to bantustans were subject to influx controls and pass laws. The objective of apartheid was to denationalize all blacks, to assign every black to one of ten bantustans. Blacks were forcibly removed from where they lived to their designated bantustans.
Israel has not, since its inception, taken away vested Israeli citizenship of even one Palestinian for the sole reason that the person is ethnic Palestinian. Israel has not created designated territories within its borders to which it has forcibly removed its own citizens who are ethnic Palestinian. Indeed, when one starts to look at what apartheid really was, any comparison between Israel today and South Africa at the time of apartheid becomes ludicrous. (For a detailed description of the legal structure of apartheid, see "Apartheid as a root cause of human rights violations" chapter 8 in No More: The Battle against Human Rights Violations.)
To make a charge of apartheid against Israel, aside from its wild inaccuracy, its obvious political motivation, its incitement to hatred and its hurtfulness, is a disrespect, a trivialization of the suffering of the true victims of apartheid. Palestinians were prepared to bring that disrespect, that trivialization to the home turf of the victims of apartheid.
The fact that some South Africans were foolish or forgetful enough to accept the comparison between Zionism and apartheid does not validate it. The acceptance is, rather, a testimonial to the relentlessness and dishonesty of Palestinian propaganda.
The accusations made against Israel were accusations made against the state and not individuals. Because the Jewish community world wide supports, with few exceptions, the existence of the State of Israel, accusations of criminality against Israel, not for what it does but what it is, are accusations of support for criminality against the whole Jewish community. The charges are a collective accusation of guilt, rather than individual accusations of crime.
The Jewish community is all too familiar with collective accusations of guilt, having been told for centuries that the Jewish community, as a community, killed Jesus Christ. The accusations made against the Jewish state of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions on the Laws of War, colonialism, war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and acts of apartheid are of the same nature, blaming a whole community for either committing or supporting the most heinous crimes.
Accusing a whole community of heinous crimes is a form of incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence against that community. Incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence against any ethnic, religious or cultural group violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Extreme inflammatory language, accusing Israel of the gravest crimes by virtue of its very existence, (and, by implication, accusing the Jewish community of supporting those crimes is a new antisemitism) an incitement to discrimination, racial hatred and violence against Jews, both inside and outside of Israel.
Given Palestinian ambitions, the question for both the NGO Forum against Racism and the World Conference Against Racism became whether they would be able to defend themselves from turning into a Forum and Conference endorsing racism and incitement to hatred. Would the fanaticism of the enemies of Israel carry the day?
III. The Process
The basic element of the NGO Forum was the caucus. It was caucuses which voted in the plenary, not individuals nor organizations. It was caucuses which submitted texts that formed the component parts of the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action. It was caucuses that ran the thematic commissions during the Forum where discussions of text were held.
Despite the centrality of caucuses to the Forum, there were never any clear rules, nor indeed any written rules, about who could form a caucus, how a caucus could be formed, nor by when a caucus had to be formed. In practice, any group of individuals could signify to the organizers that they wished to form a caucus based on a region or victim group or theme, and status was bestowed. At the last minute a deadline was imposed, of two days before the closing plenary. At that point there were forty-one caucuses. Some were formed, it seemed, just for the purpose of piling up votes. The Palestinian cause, in particular, ended up having four caucuses - Palestinian, Arab and the Middle East, Environmental Racism, and Colonialism and Foreign Occupation.
When it came to the plenary, several groups realized that they were disenfranchised, not being part of any caucus. They asked to be allowed to form caucuses then and there. Those at the head table agreed, insisting only that there be at least ten in the hall who wanted to join the caucus. Within a few minutes, several new caucuses were formed, including Sikhs, Pakistan, Refugees and South Asia and additional voting cards given out. As the queue for new voting cards grew, the plenary had second thoughts. They decided to have a vote on the new procedure and repudiated it. The decision was, no new caucuses. So the new voting cards handed out had to be handed back in.
The thematic commissions were equally problematic. In theory, the thematic commissions at the Forum were the place to discuss components of the text of the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action. Each thematic commission was run by a caucus. The Commission on Antisemitism, for instance, for which I was the rapporteur, was run by the Jewish Caucus. The Caucus and Commission co-chairs were Karen Mock of B’nai Brith Canada and Shimon Samuels of the Paris office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
There were only 25 thematic commissions, considerably fewer than the number of caucuses. Those who were not part of any caucus and those whose caucuses were not running a thematic commission were left to choose amongst the thematic commissions run by caucuses of which they did not form part.
Voting in commissions was as perplexing as voting in plenary. There were rules circulated for commissions saying that there would be majority rule if there was no consensus. But a majority of whom? The rules did not say. Was it a majority of the relevant caucus, or a majority of whoever happened to be around at the time? The first alternative was exclusionary, but the second was far worse. For it would allow those antagonistic to the aims of the caucus and the voice of its victims to overwhelm the caucus and take away from the victims the chance to speak of their victimization.
The litany of bungles and confusions seemed never ending. Before Durban, the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action had gone through several drafts that seemed to please almost nobody. At Durban, the press kits contained an early draft that had been rejected by the International Steering Committee. The delegates kits had no draft. Instead, delegates were instructed to find a draft on the internet, though few had access to computers.
Rather than circulate a prior draft to the thematic commissions for comment, the organizers tried to do something specific and up to date. Each thematic commission was given new language specific to its theme for comment. The language was drawn from prior drafts and other submissions the organizers and Drafting Committee had received. Only text relevant to the theme was given to each commission, to prevent commissions from wandering off into other areas, commenting on language submitted by other caucuses.
The trouble with this approach was that it meant that each caucus could prepare comments only on a small part of the text, the text relevant to the theme of the commission which that caucus ran. The rest of the text was not before the commission for comment.
As well, the organizers failed to take into account the inevitable delays in producing new texts. The texts that each commission had to consider were delivered sometimes a few minutes before, sometimes even after the commissions had begun their deliberations. Needless to say, there were not sufficient copies for those present. Most people present at commissions were discussing texts that were not in front of them.
The Commission on Antisemitism had its own special problem, an invasion of hostile elements. As the Forum organizers suggested, the Commission was divided into two parts. The first part was a sequence of short presentations defining antisemitism and presenting victims’ stories. The second was discussion of the Commission’s contribution to the overall Declaration and Program of Action.
Towards the end of the first part, a number of participants who were supporters of the Palestinians and hostile to the existence of Israel and the work of the Commission jumped up and started haranguing the Commission non stop. At the same time, about one hundred people, almost doubling the attendance, many of them wearing kafiyas (a checkered scarf symbolising support for the Palestinian cause), stormed the Commission.
Continuation of the Commission became impossible. The last speaker, Peleg Reshef, chair of the World Union of Jewish Students, shouted out his presentation and the Commission recessed. After the recess, the Commission split into six working groups to allow discussion and to draft different components of the antisemitism part of the Declaration and Program of Action.
The split, after a fashion, worked. The trouble makers were able to make life difficult for a few of the working groups, but not for all of them. Many of invaders left when they realized that their audience, the Commission plenary, was fragmented.
The Jewish Caucus met every night at the Durban Jewish Club, down the road from the Kingsmead Cricket Ground. Yehuda Kay, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, was the Caucus meetings facilitator. At the Caucus meeting, the night following the Commission, each working group reported to me. From those reports and the prior texts, and along with the help of other members of the Jewish Caucus, I stitched together a report to the Drafting Committee for the NGO Declaration and Program of Action. One clause stated:
"We are concerned with the prevalence of antizionism and attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel through wildly inaccurate charges of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, as a virulent contemporary form of antisemitism leading to firebombing of synagogues, armed assaults against Jews, incitements to killing, and the murder of innocent Jews, for their support for the existence of the State of Israel, the assertion of the right to self determination of the Jewish people and the attempts, through the State of Israel, to preserve their cultural and religious identity,"
Antoine Madelin of the International Federation for Human Rights was the member of the NGO Drafting Committee appointed as liaison with the Commission on Antisemitism. One of the Federation’s affiliates is LAW, a Palestinian led group. LAW was also represented on the steering committee of the NGO Forum.
When I handed in our text, Antoine was not pleased. He tried to persuade me to remove the quoted clause, arguing that it was justifiable to criticise the policies of Israel and the Palestinian language was directed to policies only. I explained to him that this was not the way the Jewish Caucus saw it and stood firm.
The troublemakers at the Commission on Antisemitism, not satisfied with the vitriolic anti-Israel language they had already produced in the Palestinian Caucus, tried to eliminate the report of the Commission on Antisemitism from the Declaration and Program of Action, complaining that the Commission was invalid because we did not continue in the plenary which they made impossible to conduct. Seven of them filed a formal complaint with the overall NGO Forum Steering Committee on the basis that the Commission on Antisemitism had no plenary discussion, only working group discussions, that there was no consensus and that no vote was taken on the report of the Commission, as the rules required.
My answer to that, when asked by the International Steering Committee, was that there was a consensus amongst members of the victim group, the Jewish Caucus, and that no caucus should have to count the votes of those who would oppress the group the caucus represented. The Steering Committee, it seemed, accepted that answer, because the report of the Commission on Antisemitism, including the contradictory language, remained in the draft presented to the overall plenary.
Neither Antoine nor the Drafting Committee nor the Steering Committee felt that they had the authority to remove language that was agreed to by a caucus. So the draft Declaration and Program of Action, as presented at the plenary, contained a part on Palestinians accusing Israel of all the worst crimes, and a part on antisemitism stating that these accusations were antisemitism and incitement to hatred. The Drafting Committee did edit out some of the contradictory language, relegating it to one paragraph, rather than the several in which the Jewish Caucus had inserted it. But the substance remained.
The plenary was something else. It was, first of all, held on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments in the Torah. While some people in the Jewish community, including myself, are not all that religious, many are observant. The institutional Jewish community respects all Jewish religious holidays. The Jewish Caucus could not participate in the Saturday plenary. Individuals could attend as observers only, and not to represent the Jewish Caucus. That is what I did.
The rules for the plenary provided that any caucus could propose an amendment to text emanating from another caucus. A decision on the proposed amendment would be made by a majority of caucuses, one caucus one vote.
The Jewish Caucus had proposed an amendment deleting all the anti-Zionist paragraphs in the text and prepared a statement to speak to it. But we were not going to attend. Someone who was not Jewish volunteered to give the statement for us, so that our voice could be heard.
Throughout the process, the Drafting Committee, the Steering Committee and SANGOCO, (the South African NGO coalition that was the host on the ground for the NGO Forum) all, in various ways, showed sympathy for the Palestinian cause and insensitivity to the Jewish Caucus. They were not impartial and made no real effort to appear to be impartial.
One example was the scheduling of the plenary for Saturday, even though one of the two parties to the central dispute before the Forum could not attend. As it turned out, the plenary was postponed to Saturday after sundown, when the Jewish Caucus could and did attend. However, that postponement did not happen out of respect for human rights principles, for religious accommodation of the Jewish Caucus. Rather, it was a fall out of the continuing disorganization of the Forum.
On Saturday morning when everyone was supposed to review, discuss and vote on the text that the Drafting Committee had put together from the contributions of the various theme commissions, there was no text to discuss, in any language. For no apparent reason, there were copies distributed in French of an earlier draft of the Declaration and Program of Action, which we were told to disregard. The text we needed to look at was still being photocopied. It would not be available to later in the day. So the plenary was postponed until after what still called, despite its inappropriate name, the closing ceremonies.
The delay of the plenary to Saturday evening to accommodate the need for copies shows that the plenary could have been postponed to Saturday evening to accommodate the Jewish Caucus. The fact that it was not postponed for that reason shows how little regard the organizers gave to fairness. The only concession the organizers made to the Jewish Caucus was to exempt them from the rule that only caucuses of more than ten participants present at the plenary scheduled for Saturday daytime could propose amendments to the text and vote.
After the preliminary skirmish about the formation of new caucuses, Irene Kahn, the new Secretary General of Amnesty International, speaking on behalf of the INGO Caucus, the caucus of international NGOs, made a proposal, that there be no votes, and that the Drafting Committee document just be accepted and forwarded to the intergovernmental World Conference in its entirety as the various perspectives and views of the victim groups. She proposed that there be an introductory paragraph explaining that the document had not been adopted by everyone and that there was language in the document that not everyone agreed with. The proposal was defeated by the plenary.
The Jewish Caucus voted against that proposal, even though it was a preferable alternative to what was then likely to happen and did later happen, deletion of the Jewish Caucus protests against anti-Zionism. It was the position of the Jewish Caucus that the anti-Zionist clauses in the draft declaration and program were not just a point of view, a differing perspective. They were an incitement to discrimination, hatred and violence against the Jewish people, in violation of human rights standards. Wording that calls for human rights violations and is itself a human rights violation should not be allowed to stand in any document, let alone a document that purports to promote respect for human rights.
The caucuses then started presenting their amendments. Individuals were not allowed to speak, only caucus representatives. Each caucus was allowed to speak only once during the whole plenary, for only five minutes, to explain any amendments it proposed. The chair appointed security to guard the floor mikes and deny access to any one the chair did not recognize.
A document titled "Agenda and Procedures" for adoption of the Declaration and Program of Action adopted by the plenary stated:
"Guiding Principle: We reaffirm the following principle, that the victims of racism and related intolerance have the right to describe their own realities of racism and related intolerance as they experience it. The NGO community supports them in this document in describing these realities of racism and related intolerance for themselves."
In spite of that guiding principle, the World Council of Churches speaking for the Ecumenical Caucus, proposed the deletion from the text on antisemitism the paragraph protesting anti-Zionism. Their reason was that this clause contradicted the pro-Palestinian clauses elsewhere in the document. The chair called a vote on this proposed deletion, without giving the Jewish Caucus, or, indeed, anyone, an opportunity to speak to it.
Several caucuses abstained, but only four, the Jewish, European Caucus, Roma and Eastern and Central European Caucuses, voted against. After this vote, the Jewish Caucus and the Eastern and Central European Caucus walked out. The Asian Descendants Caucus subsequently told the Jewish Caucus that they were so confused by what was going on that they voted in favour even though they intended to voted against.
We heard reports back that, later that evening, the European Caucus and the Roma Caucus also walked out. The Roma Caucus, before they walked out, took the microphone to explained that they were leaving because they could not approve the hate language contained in the NGO documents. We also heard that the Arab caucus proposed the addition of paragraphs, which the plenary accepted, that expanded the definition of antisemitism to include Arabs as victims. At about four in the morning, with about seventy five people left and fifteen caucus representatives, the plenary approved the Declaration and Program of Action. At the end of the day, the paragraph from the Commission on Antisemitism protesting anti-Zionism was the only paragraph that the plenary deleted from the draft document.
The Eastern and Central European Caucus, the Cultural Diversity Caucus, and the South Asia and Peace Caucuses each circulated statements afterwards rejecting the NGO Declaration and Program of Action and the process that generated it. The Eastern and Central European Caucus statement included a petition which scores of NGOs signed. That statement declared:
"the process of compilation and adoption of the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action was neither transparent nor democratic and permeated with procedural violations. The draft documents were not submitted to the delegates in a timely manner and the rules of procedure were unclear and repeatedly changed; the discussion was heavily restricted. Finally the delegates were not given an opportunity to vote on the draft documents in their entirety. This enables us to affirm that the documents cannot be considered adopted by the NGO Forum and are not consensus documents.
We believe that as a result of this flawed process, the contents of the documents include unacceptable concepts and language…
We must emphasize that the language of the chapter "Palestine" as well as the deliberate distortions made to the chapter "Anti-Semitism" is extremely intolerant, disrespectful and contrary to the very spirit of the World Conference… "
The European Roma Rights Centre, which signed this Caucus statement, issued its own statement which said:
"The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) is saddened to conclude that it cannot endorse the 72-page NGO Declaration and Programme of Action submitted yesterday to the organisers of the World Conference against Racism in Durban on behalf of the NGO Forum. ‘These documents contain inappropriate language fuelling precisely the kind of hatred and racism the Durban gathering was meant to challenge,’ said Dimitrina Petrova, Executive Director of ERRC. ‘We cannot but deplore the fact that an event of such importance for Roma and other victims of discrimination was apparently hijacked by biased activists, forcing through their own agenda. The aggressive exclusion of Jewish participants by fellow NGO colleague and the accompanying, blatantly intolerant anti-Semitic spirit plaguing the entire process, prompted us to firmly distance ourselves from this Forum’s unfortunate outcome.’"
The Cultural Diversity Caucus statement declared:
"- the Conference has, under cover of the democratic system of the United Nations, developed governmental documents with racist content:
- the Middle East is not a racial conflict, but only a political-cultural conflict, which is not relevant to the Conference;
- it is not true that Israel is committing genocide, ethnic cleansing, much less apartheid:…
- the Conference has not blocked racist language from intergovernmental and non-governmental documents and has not respected human rights…
For the above reasons, we request:…
- To reject the intergovernmental and non-governmental documents from this Conference… "
The South Asia and Peace Caucuses declared, in a statement signed by several other NGOs:
"1) The declaration has not been drafted in a transparent manner. The drafts were presented at odd hours without giving proper notice to the plenary.
2) The process of drafting was not democratic. Out of a large number of NGO’s/Caucuses, only a few were represented in the Drafting Committee while some NGO’s were over represented. the drafting committee was not democratically constituted,
3) The process of drafting was highly politicized with certain NGO’s taking definite political stances on specific issues… "
Even the drafting committee rejected the process. Six members of the committee, but not Antoine, issued a statement in which they said:
"The proposal by the Ecumenical Caucus to delete a paragraph from the submissions made by the Antisemitism Thematic Commission and the subsequent walk out by members of the Antisemitism Thematic Commission in the midst of a general uproar was certainly not conducive, in our minds, to the intent and objectives of the Plenary.
As members of the Drafting Committee we indicated to the International Steering Committee our unhappiness with the way the plenary had been conducted… "
Most significantly, Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary General of the World Conference Against Racism, rejected the language of the NGO Forum concluding document, refusing to recommend its adoption by the intergovernmental World Conference. The Jewish Caucus, in a letter to Mary Robinson, wrote: "The NGO Forum presented the Jewish caucus with a vote where majority rules. However, human rights can not be compromised by the tyranny of the majority. We reject any vote that votes away our human rights. We ask you to do the same." She said publicly: "It’s sad for me that for the first time I can’t recommend to delegates that they pay close attention to the NGO Declaration." She was "disheartened and dismayed" by the inappropriate language accusing Israel of genocide. She called the document "unacceptable and hurtful". She added: "I am aware of and condemn those whose words and actions in Durban were themselves intolerant, even racist."
IV. The Atmosphere
The offensive wording in the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action gave only an inkling of the pervasive antisemitism at the Forum. The grounds of the Forum became an arena of antisemitism, a stadium of hatred.
On entry to the Forum grounds, every participant was accosted by virulent antisemitic slogans, pamphlets, slurs and chants. There was a steady stream of incidents of people from the Jewish caucus being threatened, verbally abused and harassed for no other reason than that they were Jewish and had stood up for the rights of the Jewish people. The overall impression and effect was to make anyone who was Jewish feel unwelcome and unwanted.
An officially sanctioned booth at the Forum of the Arab Lawyers Union handed out antisemitic hate propaganda that violated international human rights and South African legal standards - cartoons portraying Jews with hooked noses, blood dripping from fangs, with pots of money surrounding the victims. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a czarist forgery, along with other traditional antisemitic literature, were on sale at the Forum. The Afro-Brazilian National Congress handed out a flyer with the headline "Down with the Nazi-Israel Apartheid." Similar flyers and posters were plastered all over the official information tent, as well as tents allocated for regional meetings.
Within the Forum grounds, T-shirts were freely distributed with both the official NGO World Conference logo and symbols inciting hatred and violence towards the Jewish state, including the phrase "End Israeli Apartheid". Marches and chants of an antisemitic nature went on almost continuously throughout the Forum, with participants shouting "Zionism is racism" or "Israel Nakba". ("Nakba" is Arabic for "catastrophe".)
Some of the comments directed at Jewish participants were "You do not belong to the human race." "Chosen people? You are cursed people." "Why haven’t the Jews taken responsibility for killing Jesus." "They’ve sucked our blood all these years." At a rally on Friday August 31st, there was a poster reading "Hitler should have finished the job". At another rally during the Forum, a person shouted "kill the Jews". These sorts of comments were incessant, endemic.
The invasion of the Commission on Antisemitism on Tuesday August 28th by hostile elements was a harbinger of things to come. On Thursday August 30th, the Jewish Caucus held a press conference in the Forum’s media tent, chaired by Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute of Los Angeles. A group hostile to the concerns of the Caucus invaded the press conference and shouted it down too. The din created by agitators chanting "Zionism is Racism" prevented journalists from asking us questions. One of the Palestinian rabble rousers shouted at me while I was at the press conference: "You are killing our children."
This was the second time in my life I had been accused of murder. The first time I was eight. A playmate accused me of killing Jesus Christ. Unaware of both antisemitism and Christian theology at the time, I replied, lamely, that I had killed no one. However, the charge seemed so bizarre, that an eight year old could be guilty of killing someone who died almost 2000 years ago, it stuck with me. I appreciate now, though I did not then, the seriousness of the charge, the danger it posed for me and the whole Jewish community.
Collective guilt leads to collective punishment. That is presumably what the Palestinian accuser had in mind. He accused me of killing Palestinian children, because he wanted to punish me as a member of the Jewish community, by denying to me the right to membership in a people which enjoys the right to self determination.
The rally at the Forum on Friday August 31st was supposed to be against racism, but it turned into a rally against the Jewish people. The demonstrators took their march, not to the city hall or national government buildings or consular offices, but to the Durban Jewish Club blocking its access and threatening its occupants.
The Jewish Caucus, though it normally met in the evening, had scheduled its Friday meeting for that afternoon, so as not to conflict with the oncoming Sabbath, which started at sundown Friday evening. Security officials closed off the Jewish Club to protect against an invasion from the demonstrators.
At the last minute, the Caucus meeting was rescheduled to the lobby coffee shop of the Hilton Hotel, the World Conference hotel. As many members as possible were advised of the change through cell phone. So, the Jewish Caucus was relegated to a hotel lobby to meet and plan about the Forum plenary that, because of the Sabbath, they could not attend.
The Forum ended as badly as it began. It began, at least for me, with the Commission on Antisemitism that was invaded by hostile elements. It ended with the Jewish Caucus plenary walkout. The Jewish Caucus, after voting alone, walked out to applause and shouts of "Get out of Palestine" and "Free Palestine".
During the Forum, Palestinian agitators interrupted not just the Jewish Caucus press conference, but private media interviews as well. They would break into any media interview of a Jewish Caucus representative they noticed, by answering the questions the reporter asked the Jewish Caucus representative and not giving the Caucus representative a chance to respond.
After the Jewish Caucus walked out of the plenary and its members were being interviewed by media, Palestinian provocateurs attempted to disrupt these interviews as well. One Palestinian apologist broke into an interview that a Reuters reporter was conducting of me and Anne Bayefsky. The reporter asked the Palestinian apologist to move on, but he refused. We had to walk away from him to carry on the interview. We then had to leave the Kingsmead Cricket Grounds because security staff advised us our safety was at risk.
The organizers of the Forum did nothing to prevent the dissemination of hatred and incitement to hatred. Indeed, some of the organizers actively participated in it. There were police on the grounds who occasionally interposed themselves between Palestinian demonstrators and Jewish delegates when things seemed to be getting out of hand. However, that was the only effort made by anyone to control the situation.
A gang of terrorists operating under the name of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a number of planes in 1970 in order to garner publicity for their cause. The result was the installation of metal detectors and security checks at airports around the world. The hijacking of the NGO Forum against Racism by a new generation of anti-Zionists is going to require a global response as momentous as the changes to airports in the seventies. For future NGO fora, organizers are going to have to install hate detectors. They must not allow the fanaticism of a few to deny fundamental human rights of the many.
Though the blame for the deterioration of the NGO Forum lies primarily with the NGOs themselves, the UN must share some responsibility, because the UN gave money to NGOs to organize and attend the Forum. Money was given to NGOs to attend whose commitment to sowing hatred against the Jewish people was obvious from the start. Money was given to the host NGO, SANGOCO, for organization, without adequate supervision or insistence that minimal standards be respected.
The NGO Forum against Racism showed the need for a democratic voting structure, an independent mechanism for the adjudication of disputes, the articulation and enforcement of standards of respect and civility and an adequate security structure. In short, the nongovernmental Forum demonstrated the need for government.
The Durban NGO Forum told us what civil society becomes when it ceases to be civil. It is an unruly mob, a kangaroo court, a bunch of bullies and cowards, a collection of tricksters and suckers.
Neither the World Conference Against Racism nor the NGO Forum against Racism ended up being, in the main, about the fight against racism. Instead, most of the debate and deliberations at both meetings were devoted to Middle East politics. Indeed, given the persistence of Arab attempts to delegitimize the state of Israel by criticising it of the worst crimes imaginable and by minimizing or overgeneralizing the human rights violations that gave Israel birth, both the NGO Forum and the World Conference became venues for racism.
Nonetheless, at the end of the day, the World Conference, though it produced an unsatisfactory document, was not as wacky as the NGO Forum. The intergovernmental Conference absorbed itself in Middle East politics every bit as much as the nongovernmental Forum did. It ended up with text expressing concern for the plight of the Palestinians under foreign occupation.
Additional text supported a right of return of refugees to their homes. The text was under the rubric "Middle East" and appeared to be a coded references to Israel, though Israel was not specifically named.
The World Conference document can be condemned, by virtue of these texts, for its politicisation, its wandering off into an area that had nothing to do with racism, for its coded wrong headed siding with the Palestinians and against Israel in the dispute over whether Palestinians who have never set foot in Israel and never had any legal status granted by the state have a right to enter Israel en masse.
However, the World Conference document is not the incitement to hatred against Jews, the racist document, that the NGO Forum document is. In the struggle for respect for human rights, historically it is governments that are called to account, and NGOs doing the accounting. It is governments that violate human rights and NGOs promoting respect for those rights.
In Durban, the tables were turned. The NGO document diminished and tarnished rights far more than the intergovernmental document did. The NGO document was farther off the human rights mark than the intergovernmental document was. After Durban, nongovernmental organizations can not say with a straight face that they always articulate ideals for governments to follow. In Durban, NGOs lost their innocence. They articulated and incited human rights violations that governments had the good sense not to mimic.
Both the World Conference and the NGO Forum against Racism, by providing a venue and a platform for incitement to hatred against Jews, set back, rather than advanced, the fight against racism. Neither should have been convened. State delegates and nongovernmental representatives who came to Durban to fight racism were caught up in a rearguard struggle to prevent the endorsement of racism.
Both the Conference and the Forum were a colossal waste of time and money. No one who is serious about opposing racism would cite the Declaration and Program of Action of either the Conference or the Forum in support of their cause.
There are, of course, in the concluding documents of the Conference and the Forum many noble sentiments and anti-racist principles. However, a document that is racist in ten articles and anti-racist in ninety is all bad. Indeed, in the future, one gauge of the commitment to fighting racism will be the willingness to condemn or at least avoid reliance on the concluding documents of the Forum and the Conference.
There was some talk of continuation of the International Steering Committee to follow up on implementation of the NGO Forum and Declaration of Action. The International Steering Committee so discredited itself that it should just be disbanded.
The Government of Canada was on the verge of walking out from the World Conference throughout. The Americans and the Israelis did walk out, Monday September 3rd. The Jewish Caucus, including the organization I represented, B’nai Brith Canada, decided the next day to join the walk out. B’nai B’rith International President Richard D. Heideman, in a statement made on behalf of the Jewish Caucus, said: "The United Nations was founded to promote human rights and international security. This conference, though, has undermined these principles." The Government of Canada stayed, according to its United Nations Ambassador Paul Heinbecker, "only because we wanted to have our voice decry the attempts at the conference to delegitimize the state of Israel, and to dishonour the history of the Jewish people."
The aboriginal caucus also walked out, on Friday September 7th, and asked all those sympathetic to the rights of indigenous people to join them. The focus of their concern was the endorsement of those provisions of the World Conference Declaration that denied that the term "indigenous peoples" has any international law rights implications (articles 26, 27, 50 and 51.) Their statement said: "it is inconceivable and unacceptable that something of this nature would occur at a place where the rights of peoples were to be discussed and protected."
Civil society careened out of control, with a group of passengers trying to drive it off the road. The smash up that occurred was, nonetheless, avoidable.
What led, in the end, to the wreckage of the Forum was the feebleness of the support the Jewish anti-racist organizations received from other anti-racist groups. While the Cultural Diversity, Asian Descendants, Eastern and Central European, South Asia, Peace and European Caucuses each in their own way expressed their voices in solidarity, most did not.
The international NGOs disassociated themselves from the attacks on the Jewish community, but refused to condemn those attacks. At a press conference, they all urged the media to move on to other issues. All of them refused to sign the petition of the Eastern and Central European Caucus, though they were asked to do so.
Irene Kahn, Secretary General of Amnesty International said that "there is language in the [NGO] document that AI doesn’t agree with." She then outlined some areas the documents does address including "human rights violations in the Middle East against Palestinians and Israelis" and said "We agree with the issues even if the language in the document is not that we would use." She added "there are many human rights violations in the Middle East and it is wrong to cite only those in one country."
Michael Posner for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights said that "there are serious human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza that need to be condemned and we find the language [in the NGO doc.] inaccurate and reject it… The zeal of one group on behalf of victims to make their point should not infringe on the rights of others. But I agree with Irene that there is much of value in this document."
Len Rubenstein of Physicians for Human Rights said "The language of human rights has to be used precisely… The language on the Middle East in the NGO document is not used that way and we reject it." Human Rights Watch said: "We have participated in many NGO caucuses…we cannot agree with some of the language used …but this document is better than the government document in that it names the victims, countries, perpetrators…it is a voice for those outside the governmental process." The International Service said "it is impossible to endorse such a document, but in our monitoring of the conference, we see this document as part of an important long term process… "
In response to a question from National Public Radio, Michael Posner said the Lawyer’s Committee rejects the "Zionist is racism language. That language doesn’t have a place at this conference, as Mary Robinson said. But it’s time to move on… " Human Rights Watch said that governments have used the Middle East language in the NGO document as a convenient scapegoat to "avoid issues NGOs have come here to address."
The Canadian government delegation met with and briefed Canadian NGOs every day during the World Conference. At the briefing of Tuesday September 4th, a statement I made that B’nai Brith Canada had pulled out of the Conference and had asked Canada to do the same was met with widespread incomprehension. Most Canadian NGOs were so wrapped up in their issues that an attack on their colleagues took second place.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel called the Durban meetings "an enterprise of disgrace", "a moral catastrophe". He wrote: "the content was wholly unadulterated hatred and cruelty, whose expressions ought to outrage any decent and cultured human being."
The anti-racism community from around the world came to Durban to fight racism. Yet, when they found racism staring them in the face, most of them looked the other way.
The NGO community decided that confronting their colleagues at the Kingsmead Cricket Ground was just not cricket. So, they walked away from the game.
Wiesel reminded us: "Hatred is like a cancer. It spreads from cell to cell, from organ to organ, from person to person, from group to group." In Durban, the global anti-racist community set back the fight against racism, not just because they disgraced themselves by failing to combat the racism in front of their noses. The racism ignored against the Jews makes racism against others ever more likely to flourish.
Only three days after the Conference ended, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashed into the Pentagon and World Trade Centre, and killed six thousand eight hundred people. On hearing the news, thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets to celebrate, chanting "God is Great" and distributing candy to passers by.
While those at Durban could not have anticipated the terrorist attacks on the US, no one who was at the Kingsmead Cricket Grounds would have been surprised by the Palestinian reaction of joy. Some parts of the world have developed a culture of hatred against Israel and American support for Israel as fierce as the Nazi hatred of Jews before World War II. Anti-Zionism has become today what antisemitism was before World War II, not just a threat to the Jews, but a threat globally to human rights and peace, an organizing idiom for global evil.
UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson got it. When presented with the antisemitic literature being distributed at the Kingsmead Cricket Grounds, Mary Robinson, she said: "When it comes to this, I am a Jew." (She is quoted at www.wiesenthal.com.) However, by and large, the human rights NGOs at Durban didn’t get it.
Wiesel said: "What is painful is not that the Palestinians and the Arabs voiced their hatred, but the fact that so few delegates had the courage to combat them." The overall response of the human rights community, in the face of real and immediate racism was, "that is a legitimate victim’s perspective", or, "let’s talk about something else".
This was the third World Conference Against Racism, after those of 1978 and 1983, that was consumed by Middle East politics. If the global community wants to convene a fourth conference, it will either have to wait for peace in the Middle East or lay in its defenses to prevent the fighting in the Middle East from overwhelming its deliberations.
David Matas is a lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and Senior Counsel for B’nai Brith Canada. His latest book is Bloody Words: Hate and Free Speech, published in 2000 by Bain and Cox.
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