The 2009 Durban Review Conference

  • April 20, 2009


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, convened the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, April 20-24, 2009 to evaluate progress towards the goals set at the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa. 

At preparatory meetings in 2008 and 2009 for the so-called Durban II conference, many of the same actors that brought about the discrediting of the 2001 World Conference in Durban again sought to advance their agenda to focus on and demonize Israel.

European countries worked to remove overt references to and accusations against Israel. While EU intervention resulted in the removal of many of the egregious sections from the draft document by March 2009, problems persisted.  Most glaringly, the text of the document still "reaffirms" the 2001 Durban Declaration, which is unacceptable in its implication that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is racist.

Concluding that the Durban II conference was illegitimate and beyond salvage, in the months leading up to Durban II, ADL had called on the international community to stay away from Geneva.  Concerned about efforts to misuse a human rights mechanism for the inappropriate branding of Israel as a perpetrator of racism, first Canada and then Israel, the United States, Italy, Germany, Poland, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands announced they would not participate in the conference. 

Concerns Realized

At the opening session of the conference, the concerns of these countries were realized, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium and delivered an incendiary anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speech, deriding Israel as "illegitimate and "criminal" and blaming Israel, the West and "world Zionism" for the world's ills.

Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust, who has called for Israel's destruction, and who heads a regime that sponsors terrorism and commits some of the world's most egregious human rights violations against minorities and dissidents, was a featured speaker at the opening session of the Conference.

Representatives of the 24 member states of the European Union who were still participating in Durban II walked out of the conference hall in protest during Ahmadinejad's speech.  The Czech Republic announced that they would not return to the conference. 

Harsh Denunciation of Israel

While the final four days of the conference proceeded according to schedule, a number of speakers made harsh denunciations of Israel.  The "final resolution" was agreed upon and issued on the second day of the conference – complete with the problematic reaffirmation of the 2001 Durban Declaration, with its unacceptable implication that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is racist.  

In parting statements, a number of participating countries pledged that because of the controversies and efforts to politicize the fight against racism, there would be no “Durban III.”

The 2001 Durban Conference, held out the promise of making real strides in countering the scourge of racism. Unfortunately, the goals of the conference were undermined and overshadowed by base anti-Semitism and extreme expressions of anti-Israel sentiment by some groups. 

At that time, concerned governments, including the United States, hoped that they could influence the discussion and produce a government declaration that would advance the anti-racism cause.  

They were unable to prevail against those in the Asia and Africa group and their allies, who insisted on reducing the objective of fighting international racism down to one issue – the demonizing and delegitimizing of Israel. 

Despite vigorous efforts by the US and European governments the 2001 Durban Declaration had the effect of branding Israel's treatment of Palestinians as motivated by race and thus polluted the definition of racism itself in a decisive international instrument on the issue.

Iranian Leader Bashes Israel

Predictably, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the podium afforded to him on day one of the Durban Review Conference to attack Israel and to reprise on a world stage the anti-Semitic myths of "Zionist" world power and denial of the Holocaust – calling Israel "illegitimate," "criminal" and "violent xenophobes" and saying the State was "created on the pretext of Jewish suffering from World War II."

His speech prompted more than 40 diplomats, including at least 27 representatives from the European Union in attendance at the Geneva meeting, to get up and walk out.

He called for the end of Israel and Zionism, proclaiming: "Governments must be encouraged and supported in their fights at eradicating this barbaric racism. Efforts must be made to put an end to Zionism."

The Iranian leader accused "world Zionism" of personifying "racism that falsely resorts to religion and abuses religion to hide their hatred and ugly faces.

He further accused "world powers" of undue support of the "Zionist regime": "They mobilize great resources, world media for example, to support the Zionist regime. This ugly phenomenon cannot be campaigned against. The Zionists and their supporters must be stopped, and their influence cut short. Governments must eradicate this barbaric racism. You are all aware of the conspiracies of some powers. Unfortunately there have been statements in support of Zionism, through honorable representatives of nations."

Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust, who has called for Israel's destruction, and who heads a regime that commits some of the world's most egregious human rights violations against minorities and dissidents, was a featured speaker at the opening session of the Conference.

Although it was clear that Ahmadinejad's speech at the Conference would be extreme, he was greeted with respect by UN and Swiss officials upon his arrival at the conference. He met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and was hosted by Swiss President Hans-Rudolph Metz.

According to the Swiss government the meeting discussed, "collaboration in the energy and economic sectors." Switzerland's largest gas company, EGL, is currently upgrading Iran's gas distribution system and is among the few Western energy companies working with Iran while its nuclear program remains a threat. In 2007, soon after a UN Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran, EGL signed a $30 billion contract to purchase Iranian gas.

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