Reporting from Geneva, Naomi Klein, a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, reveals the grudges and absurdities of Durban II, the follow-up convention to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Such issues as reparations for slavery—and the correction of other immense historical imbalances resulting from colonialism and racism—are overshadowed, in the months leading up to the conference, by supporters of Israel, who seize on fears that the conference will promote an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agenda. In reality, the U.N. goes to great lengths to ensure the neutrality of the proceedings, but the objections reduce Durban II to an event that nobody (except anti-Israel crusader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) wants to touch, and the bare-knuckles fight seems convincingly won. Meanwhile, U.S. public-policy activists report the word that the White House is interested only in hearing about projects that are “race neutral”—and not in anything that targets disadvantaged constituencies. Which all leads to the question of whether the relatively thin charge of anti-Semitism was, for many developed nations, an excuse to avoid Durban II’s questions about what the rich countries of the world might reasonably owe on their debts to the peoples they once exploited. Klein pays particular attention to the Obama Administration’s legislative inaction on racial issues—and what it means for all of us.The article very clearly points to the enormous distortion promoted by some pro-Israel NGO activists, politicians and journalists. These were in turned exploited by governments that wanted to avoid the profoundly important consequences of putting racial discrimination at the centre of the agenda of the United Nations. In effect, one of the great racist atrocities of all time – the Holocaust – was invoked to sabotage efforts to address the consequences and the aftermath of one of the other great racist atrocities of all time – the African slave trade.
All of this sits within the debate provoked by former President Jimmy Carter’s statement earlier this week that the venom in the recent attacks on Obama are driven by racism (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/carters-racism-charge-sparks-war-of-words/?hp). Carter is a wise old man, and his observations on politics in the United States are usually right on the mark, as they are in this case. Of course, Obama himself can’t say such things, and the White House has issued some predictable statements that disagree with Carter. But what Carter said needed to be said.
A few days later, we had more insanity from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, who apparently said in a speech at Tehran University that ‘The pretext [the Holocaust] for the creation of the Zionist regime [Israel] is false. It is a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim.’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8264111.stm) I don’t see any need to discuss the absurdity of such statements here, and I hope that nobody will accuse me of promoting Holocaust denial by reproducing his words for the purposes of illustration. Ahmadinejad’s own government agreed, at Durban, to a consensus document that included the following: ‘Recalls that the Holocaust must never be forgotten, and in this context urges all Member States to implement General Assembly resolutions 60/7 and 61/255…’ (para. 66; see http://www.un.org/durbanreview2009/pdf/Durban_Review_outcome_document_En.pdf).
In my view, racial discrimination has always been and remains the human rights issue, par excellence. The very first human rights convention adopted by the United Nations, on 9 December 1948, only a few hours before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dealt with the supreme racist crime of genocide. Over the years, critics of the alleged shortcomings of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide have faulted its limited scope, but I don’t agree. It is true that the Convention only applies to ‘national, ethnical, racial and religious groups’. Some say it should also cover political groups, or economic and social groups, or gender groups, and so on. However, the debate is not that victimization of such groups should not be addressed by human rights law, or by international criminal law. All of these other groups are now adequately protected by the prohibition of crimes against humanity, and by various other human rights treaties. But that the first human rights treaty dealt with the intentional physical destruction of national, ethnical, racial and religious groups underscores the centrality of the issue of racial discrimination at a seminal phase in the development of human rights law, in the late 1940s.
This is easily explained and understood by the immediate political context: the revelations of the scope of the intended destruction of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis. But there were other important factors that contributed to the context of the adoption of the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the ongoing apartheid and apartheid-like regimes in southern Africa and in the United States. The period also marked the beginnings of decolonization, and this merely heightened the perception that the perverse origins of the Nazi Holocaust lay in the falsehood that one racial or ethnic group was superior to another.
How troubling, then, that sixty years later has become so difficult for the United Nations to hold a mature, thoughtful and productive conference on the subject of racial discrimination. To return to Naomi Klein’s article in Harper’s, several actors deserve the blame for the problems: Israel and its friends, who have manipulated the truth about the nature of the work of the United Nations by gross exaggeration of the role and intervention of certain fanatics; western States, like Canada and the United States and those of Western Europe, that love to talk about ‘accountability’ for atrocities when they take place in Cambodia or Bosnia or Sierra Leone but that loath the idea that we continue to address the impact of slavery, the slave trade, colonialism and the destruction of aboriginal peoples; and provocative politicians like Mohamed Ahmadinejad, who in desperation make absurd statements that probably deserve to be ignored rather than exaggerated.
Thanks to Ezra Schabas and Tara Smith.