Commentary Magazine


The Wages of Durban

In the wake of the horrific attacks on New York and Washington by fanatical Islamic terrorists, the world has all but forgotten the conference on racism sponsored by the United Nations in Durban, South Africa. But in the days just prior to the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) was very much in the news, and for reasons that are altogether relevant to the mass murder that took place on September 11.

While there are many reasons to deplore the WCAR proceedings, three dominant themes deserve particular attention in the light of subsequent events. First and foremost, Durban provided a platform for the expression of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred. Although this was not the first UN venue to single out Israel for special attack, it was perhaps unique in the virulence of the language employed, and in its underlying assumption that Israel deserved not simply to be condemned but to be destroyed. A coalition led by regimes that persecute their own people—and in some cases harbor international terrorists—sought by formal declaration to delegitimize the Jewish state, demonize its people, and mobilize a global movement against its existence as a country. This coalition would itself have had little difficulty in justifying and even praising acts of terror against Israel.

A second theme was anti-Americanism. While the most abusive treatment was reserved for Israel, the United States was singled out for attack on a number of counts, most notably as a society that treats darker-skinned peoples with contempt and where new manifestations of racism are emerging everywhere. For most of those present at Durban, America was a country to be condemned, not admired—an attitude only strengthened by Washington’s decision to withdraw from the WCAR in solidarity with Israel.

Third, Durban represented a repudiation of liberal democracy. Although the anti-democratic bias was most vividly on display in the debate over the payment of reparations for slavery and colonialism, it was inherent in an agenda that highlighted the problems of the democratic world, where countries have adopted elaborate mechanisms to root out discrimination, and minimized or ignored the much more serious and in some cases lethal ethnic and racial crises that afflict non-Western states.

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The WCAR was conceived in 1997 by Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A former president of Ireland, Mrs. Robinson had earned a reputation as someone willing, even eager, to point a finger at states she considered to be in violation of international norms. Earlier this year, Mrs. Robinson commissioned a series of reports on the Israel-Palestinian crisis that Israelis correctly regarded as one-sided and biased, with little attention paid to acts of violence or terrorism committed by the Palestinian side. She had also moved aggressively to expand the human-rights mandate beyond such traditional concerns as political freedom, freedom of the press, and state persecution of individual citizens to encompass and elevate such new and complex questions as social rights, cultural rights, and the “right to development.”

The Durban conference—portentously titled the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance—was convened with the ambitious goal of devising strategies to counter prejudice in all its manifestations and in every part of the world. In proposing the WCAR, Mrs. Robinson and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself an enthusiastic supporter of the venture, clearly expected to avoid the fate of two previous such UN forums in 1978 and 1983. Both had been boycotted by the United States and Israel in protest over their anti-Zionist agendas, and both ended in shambles. But in 1991 the General Assembly had repealed its infamous 1975 resolution identifying Zionism as a form of racism, and in subsequent years Israel had attained a modest measure of acceptance in international institutions that had previously treated it as a pariah. And so, despite inauspicious precedents, Durban’s organizers believed that this time, catastrophe could be averted.

But then, starting in the fall of last year, came the new intifada, and with it a decision on the part of the Arab world to amplify substantially what was an already vituperative anti-Israel propaganda campaign, and to work toward the isolation of Israel in every available forum. A preview of things to come was readily available in the Arab press and in radio broadcasts featuring Holocaust denial, demands for the obliteration of Israel, and exhortations to murder Jews. After a visit to the Middle East last fall, Mary Robinson described herself as appalled by the murderous invective on Palestinian radio. Nevertheless, she expressed optimism that the Durban conference could actually contribute to peace, providing “an opportunity for reflection and reconciliation.”

Within a few months, it should have been clear that reconciliation was not on the Arab world’s agenda. In a preparatory meeting last February—held, incredibly enough, in Tehran—Islamic delegates gained approval for inserting in the conference’s official declaration paragraph after paragraph of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic formulations. In a series of subsequent meetings, no agreement could be won to remove this offensive language, despite a warning from Secretary of State Colin Powell that the United States would boycott Durban should it remain. When the conference opened on August 31, delegates were confronted with an official draft document containing the anti-Israel language proposed at the Tehran meeting.

The declaration referred to Israeli “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population of historic Palestine.” It described Israel’s policies as a “new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity.” It denounced “practices of racial discrimination” by Israel, and condemned something called “Zionist practices against Semitism” (meaning, presumably, Arabs). It talked of “the increase of racist practices of Zionism and anti-Semitism [again in an ambiguous sense] in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racist and violent movements based on racist and discriminatory ideas, in particular the Zionist movement, which is based on race superiority.” And in a final malicious thrust, the drafters left open for further decision the question of whether to spell the word Holocaust with an upper-or lower-case “h,” with some countries arguing that Hitler’s genocide had been a Jewish fabrication and others denying that Jews had been the focus of mass murder.

During her time at the UN, Mary Robinson had frequently inveighed against the proliferation of hate speech on the Internet. At Durban, the official document was one of the most flagrant examples of hate speech to surface in recent memory. And to make matters worse, the obscene phrases of this declaration were overshadowed by the ugliness of the conference proceedings. In speech after speech, Israel was attacked in the most loathsome terms—by Yasir Arafat, by Fidel Castro (who saved his most scathing comments for the United States), and by representatives of some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. A delegate from Iran called Zionism “the greatest manifestation of racism” and demanded that anti-Semitism (in its proper sense of discrimination against Jews) be struck from the conference’s official register of bigotries because it is not a “contemporary form of racism.” Syria weighed in with the claim that the Holocaust is a “Jewish lie”; Egypt insisted that it would not accept a conference declaration that did not explicitly identify Israel as a racist state.

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Not to be outdone were the delegates to a parallel conference for representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s). The presence of these groups was in keeping with what has become normal procedure at international gatherings, where those who claim to speak for “civil society” are invited to participate and, in some cases, serve as expert advisers in the drafting of treaties and declarations. But as the world learned at the WCAR, the question of what constitutes a legitimate nongovernmental organization is highly elastic.

Or, to be more accurate, highly ideological. Although the NGO community is in theory meant to represent all important constituencies and perspectives, in practice it is tilted strongly to the liberal/Left. Those in attendance at the WCAR did include a number of mainstream organizations—most of the major Jewish groups were present—but the conference was dominated by intensely political, single-issue groups whose representatives seemed locked in competition over which qualified as the most slanderously anti-Semitic.

There was, to begin with, the official NGO declaration, a document so repellent that even Mary Robinson refused to accept it. The document accused Israel of practicing a new kind of racism, of colonialism, of committing war crimes, racist crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law. It called for the reinstitution of the Zionism/racism resolution, endorsed a Palestinian right of return to Israel proper, and condemned Israel’s Law of Return as an instrument of an apartheid regime. Leaving nothing to chance, the statement called for the creation of a special UN committee to prosecute Israeli war crimes and to isolate Israel from the rest of the international community.

To be sure, many of the assembled NGO’s disavowed this contemptible document, and some complained that “Bolshevik” tactics had been used by conference organizers to ram through the anti-Semitic vitriol. But if a majority opposed the hate language, a critical mass clearly favored its inclusion.

Even more disturbing was the tepid response of some of the major human-rights and civil-rights groups. Thus, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, seeking to distance his organization from the declaration’s “intemperate language,” noted quite mildly that “the use of the word genocide is not appropriate” in characterizing Israel, while in the next breath adding that Israel “commits serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and arbitrary arrests.”

As regrettable as was Brody’s bit of equivocation, the reaction of Amnesty International (AI) was deplorable. While it did not endorse the NGO declaration, it declined to repudiate it. The organization’s chairman, Irene Khan, referring to “the contentious and complex nature of some of the problems” at Durban, did not so much as mention that these “problems” involved blatant expressions of racist anti-Semitism. Not, however, that AI was incapable of high moral dudgeon, at least when the issue involved the United States: one of its representatives described as “disgraceful, reprehensible, and morally indefensible” the decision by the American State Department to send a low-level delegation to Durban instead of one led by Secretary of State Powell.

In addition to the official resolution, the NGO sessions featured an ongoing anti-Semitic carnival that further envenomed the atmosphere. Delegates from Islamic countries, assisted by a rabble bused or flown into Durban for the occasion, chanted anti-Israel slogans, handed out the vilest sort of anti-Jewish literature, and sponsored anti-Semitic marches and rallies at which participants were adorned with T-shirts bearing anti-Zionist messages. In one incident, an Egyptian lawyers’ group distributed a pamphlet featuring cartoons that might have come straight out of Der Stürmer, with hooknosed Jews grinning over the blood-soaked bodies of Palestinians. Another leaflet had Hitler saying, “If I had not lost, Israel would not exist today.” A bullying mob broke up a panel session sponsored by Jewish groups and a press conference by Jewish NGO’s. Some Jewish attendees had to remove their identification badges or their yarmulkes in fear of overt acts of violence, verbal or physical.

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If the demonization of Israel and Jews was Durban at its ugliest, the debate over reparations was its theater of the absurd. As was the case with Israel and Zionism, the WCAR’s preliminary declaration featured lengthy sections condemning slavery and colonialism, and demanding that guilty states issue apologies and compensate the victims with a generous package of debt relief, Marshall Plan-type aid programs, and outright financial reparations.

This official document was crafted so as to direct its indictment at two, and only two, sources of slavery and colonialism: Western Europe and the United States. While Russia’s colonial empire was nearly as extensive as that of Great Britain, was enforced with systematic brutality, involved the suppression of local cultures, and ended but ten years ago with the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were no calls at Durban for Russian compensation to Estonia, Armenia, or Ukraine. Nor was much said about contemporary slavery; to do so would have embarrassed predominantly Islamic countries like Mauritania and Sudan and possibly reminded the world that Arab states were the world’s main slaveholders throughout the Middle Ages and until the practice was abolished by the Western colonial powers (only to be reinstated in many places when they departed). No, at Durban the countries called to account for their past sins were Western, predominantly white, free-market, and democratic.

In previous times, a similar clamor for reparations would have been politely ignored, much as the proposals for a New International Economic Order were ignored during the 1970’s. In the post-cold war period, however, it is no longer considered prudent to treat conferences like the WCAR as forums for the venting of third-world frustrations, or to regard their declarations and manifestos as meaningless.

The reason has to do with the growing importance of international law, and international human-rights law in particular. Especially in Europe, courts are increasingly giving precedence to provisions of international treaties even when they clash with domestic legislation. Because of this new and unpredictable legal environment, European countries that had the most extensive colonial empires—Britain, France, Holland, Spain—fought with tenacity to prevent the conference’s final declaration from labeling the slave trade a “crime against humanity.” At some future date, they feared, an aggrieved African state or a group of descendants of slaves might cite Durban as authoritative evidence in legal action seeking billions upon billions in damages for “crimes against humanity” committed centuries ago.

Not that Africa itself spoke with a single voice at Durban. The most commonsensical observations were in fact expressed by Abdoulaye Wade, the democratically elected president of Senegal. A descendant of slave-owning African kings, Wade noted that everyone, Africans included, suffered from slavery’s taint, called demands for reparations “childish,” and said that the lack of democracy was a more serious problem than racial discrimination, a message that few at the WCAR wanted to hear. Echoing Wade was another democratically elected African president, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, who asserted that “monetary compensation [for slavery] would hurt the dignity of Africans.”

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These sentiments failed to convince other African delegates. Nor did they impress the hundreds of black Americans who flocked to Durban seeking ammunition for their ongoing campaign for reparations from the American government and private institutions. Led by Jesse Jackson and a delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus, and including a large representation from various black-nationalist fringe groups, the Americans constituted the noisiest and most aggressive pro-reparations bloc at the conference. Jackson, apparently taking his campaign to shake money loose from American corporations into the global arena, was a pervasive presence at Durban, dividing his time between denunciations of the United States for withdrawing from the conference and limelight-grabbing negotiations with Yasir Arafat over the anti-Israel rhetoric in the declaration. On this latter score, Jackson’s concern stemmed primarily from his worry that the Zionism/racism controversy could overshadow the reparations debate; unable to utter a single critical phrase about the behavior of the Arab bloc, he instead bemoaned that the conference was being “hijacked by the Middle East conflict,” when in fact it was being destroyed by the Palestinians and their allies.

Yet while the reparations issue was indeed somewhat eclipsed by the furor over Israel, some black American delegates exuded confidence that their cause would eventually triumph. And by this they meant something ambitious in the extreme. Where Africans generally restricted themselves to demanding formal apologies for slavery and relief from foreign debt, black Americans spoke of compensation in the trillions of dollars.

That, anyway, has been the declared goal of lawyers like Johnnie Cochran and Charles Ogle-tree, who are supervising batteries of legal experts in the preparation of lawsuits. As precedents, Ogletree and others cite the modest compensation paid by the United States to Japanese-Americans detained during World War II, money paid to Holocaust survivors by the German government and other sources, and compensation made by Iraq after its 1990 occupation of Kuwait. That these payments were limited to the actual victims of persecution is dismissed as irrelevant; American blacks, it is argued, suffer even today from “post-slavery traumatic syndrome,” a condition which, when reinforced by pervasive American racism, is said to prevent blacks from attaining equal and dignified lives.

The proposition that apologies and reparations will enhance either African development or racial equality in America is, of course, utter nonsense. More than that, the reparations idea is a major step backward, representing as it does a revival of the notion that Africa’s climb to prosperity depends primarily on foreign handouts and that racial equality in America can be achieved only if the state commits itself to a massive redistributive transfer of money to black citizens.

Yet blame for this travesty should not be directed solely at African leaders or the American champions of reparations. The West, too, bears responsibility for what might be called the Durban mindset. Why, after all, should the WCAR not have demanded apologies and reparations, given the model of President Bill Clinton’s highly publicized apologies to Africa and Central America—in the case of Africa, for his own inaction in Rwanda; in the case of Central America, and quite wrongheadedly, for American policies during the cold war. Following in Clinton’s path, Prime Minister Tony Blair recently apologized to Ireland for British policies that contributed to the potato famine some 150 years ago, while, at Durban itself, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer delivered a fulsome apology for his country’s experience, minimal though it was, as a colonial power.

Likewise suffusing both the conference proceedings and the documents was another export commodity of American liberalism: the theme of victimization, with its obsessive focus on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, the transgendered, and, of more recent vintage, globalization. Conference declarations criticized countries that had failed to adopt the requisite multicultural or multilingual policies—no one at the WCAR spoke favorably of assimilation or the melting pot. Aggressive policing, racial profiling, and the death penalty were ritualistically denounced—American NGO’s saw to that, and Representative Cynthia McKinney, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, was on hand to urge that the UN dispatch a special team to investigate America’s “racist” criminal-justice system. The declaration even called for universal affirmative action, with “special quotas in educational institutions, housing, political parties, parliaments, employment, especially in the judiciary, police, army, and other civil services.”

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Underlying this whole unedifying spectacle was the assumption that, just as the conference declaration asserted, racism is “gaining ground” throughout the world. And there are indeed examples of racial and ethnic violence in recent years, some with horrible consequences. Over the past decade, however, the number of such conflicts has declined substantially. While the United States and Europe have not done all they could to resolve these clashes, it is their interventions, peacekeeping, and commitment to negotiations that, more than any other factor, have contributed to peace.

As for racism, it is precisely those countries that came under the most relentless criticism at Durban that have made the most progress in eliminating legal barriers to equality, purging their institutions of discrimination, and isolating racial extremists. This is not even to speak of the “racist” state of Israel, which by any definition happens to be one of the world’s most successful multiracial societies. At Durban, however, democracy’s ability to evolve and accommodate the coexistence of peoples of differing races and cultures was hardly mentioned.

What we witnessed instead was a rejection of the democratic idea itself as morally or politically superior to systems of oppression. This was, after all, a forum where the foreign minister of South Africa could describe Cuba as the “most democratic country in the world,” where Fidel Castro was treated as a hero, and where American political representatives, some of whom were elected because of policies designed to expand opportunities for racial minorities, attacked their own country as racist.

The conference’s omissions in this regard are worth noting. As the delegates assembled in Durban, Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders were placing on trial foreign and Afghan relief workers for the crime of preaching Christianity. Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe and a militant advocate of reparations, was spearheading a violent campaign to drive white farmers from their lands. Egypt was jailing intellectuals who spoke out against anti-Christian discrimination. Sudan’s Muslim government was prosecuting a brutal war against Christians and animists in the country’s southern region.

Nothing was said about these abuses, except for a few vague references criticizing the contemporary slave trade. Instead, the justice minister of Sudan was on hand to assure participants that in his country minority rights were guaranteed in conformity with international law. Although Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, was among a handful of heads of state in attendance, nothing was said of the genocidal tribal conflicts in his country either, except for a demand from the Organization of African Unity that the United States pay $800 million for having failed to intervene to stop the killing.

Also ignored was another current African ethnic conflict, in Nigeria, where massacres have occurred in those provinces where Muslims have imposed Islamic law. No one thought to cite the mass expulsion of Asians from black African countries, a relatively recent occurrence. Nor did China’s occupation of Tibet, as obvious an example of cultural oppression as exists in the world, provoke the WCAR’s concern. Having regularly used intimidation to deflect criticism of its human-rights record at UN forums, Beijing succeeded not only in keeping the Tibet question off the agenda but also in restricting to a handful the number of Tibetan human-rights advocates in attendance. It goes without saying that no one thought to mention the killing of Israeli Jews by terrorists trained by Osama bin Laden, crimes that clearly qualify as acts of religious and ethnic “xenophobia,” to use the WCAR’s term.

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When the United States announced that a low-level delegation would be sent to Durban and then, subsequently, withdrew from the conference, it attracted the scorn of human-rights and civil-rights organizations, which accused Washington of yet again defying world opinion by acting unilaterally. In fact, America’s withdrawal was one of the few principled acts in the whole grotesque affair.

To remain at Durban would have meant to engage in “negotiations” over whether the conference’s final declaration described Israel as a genocidal apartheid regime or, as was eventually the case, singled out the Jewish state for condemnation in more temperate language. It would also have forced the United States to participate in a debate over wrongs done centuries ago—a debate deliberately framed to ensure the conviction of America and Europe for crimes against humanity. As for well-meaning suggestions that Secretary Powell attend Durban to showcase America’s successes in promoting racial fairness, this proposition made sense only on the assumption that the participants were willing to hear such a message. The truth is that most had come to excoriate the United States, and were angry to have been deprived of that opportunity by Powell’s absence.

Instead of asking whether the United States was justified in its withdrawal, one might pose a better question: why did other democracies not join in the walkout? Although Canada (whose foreign minister was scathing in his comments), Australia, and several East European countries made clear their contempt for the WCAR, the European Union lent a measure of credibility to the proceedings by remaining to the bitter end. Although the Europeans deplored the anti-Semitic language in the official declaration, and worked to modify the final document, their principal concern was to ensure that the communiqué’s wording on reparations was watered down to the point where it could not be cited to bolster future legal action. Having achieved this objective, they pronounced themselves satisfied with the results at Durban.

Which brings us back at last to the terrorist assault on the United States, an act that took place just three days after the conference concluded and in light of which the events at Durban pale into insignificance. But Durban does deserve to be remembered—not, as some would have it, as evidence that the world is unable to come to grips with prejudice and discrimination, but as an ideological prologue to September 11.

As delegates to the WCAR wrangled over whether Israel was guilty of war crimes and apartheid, terrorist acts were being planned or carried out by Palestinian groups with the objective of killing as many Jewish civilians in Israel as possible. By the standards established by the Durban conferees, these attacks constituted a form of racist murder. Yet not only was this not on the WCAR agenda, a critical mass of Durban participants privately applauded the suicide bombings taking place in Israel.

It is but a small step from cheering acts of terrorism against Israel to finding satisfaction in terrorism against Israel’s ally, the United States. For this reason, Durban must be recorded not merely as a farce and a failure, but as an event whose message, whose achievements, and whose legacy are uniquely monstrous.

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About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.




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