Irwin Cotler: The Disgrace of Durban- Five Years Later

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(Irwin Cotler is a Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He was a member of the Canadian delegation to the Durban Conference, and has written extensively about human rights and the new anti-Semitism.He has been a faculty member at McGill University and an early supporter of SPME. )

It was said in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that “the whole world changed.” I don’t know if the world is any different. But it is clear that 9/11 had a transformative impact on our politics and collective psyche.

But if 9/11 was a transformative event, the same description must apply to another event that ended on the eve of 9/11. I am referring to “The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” in Durban, South Africa, which was the “tipping point” for the emergence of a new wave of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-racism. Unfortunately, the 5th anniversary of this event has gone largely unremarked.

As one of my colleagues put it at the time, if 9/11 was the Kristallnacht of terror, Durban was the Mein Kampf. Those of us who personally witnessed the Durban festival of hate–with its hateful declarations, incantations, pamphlets and marches–have forever been transformed. For us, Durban is part of our everyday lexicon as a byword for racism and anti-Semitism, just as 9/11 is a byword for terrorist mass murder… [W]hat happened at Durban was truly Orwellian: A conference purportedly organized to fight racism was turned into a festival of racism against Israel and the Jewish people… A conference dedicated to the promotion of human rights as the new secular religion of our time increasingly singled out Israel as a sort of modern-day geopolitical Anti-Christ.

How did this happen?

The World Conference Against Racism was organized around four regional conferences–in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia… The problem originated with the Asian regional conference, held in Tehran in February, 2001. Although Israel belonged to the Asian group, the conference organizers excluded Israel and Jewish non-governmental organizations from participation: Contrary to the United Nations’ own principles with respect to universality and equality, a member state was made a pariah. The Tehran conference also supported a country-specific indictment of Israel, yet another breach of international human-rights principles and the UN’s own procedures in this regard.

The six-point indictment emanating from the Tehran regional conference, which became a dominant blueprint for Durban, has emerged as one of the more scurrilous documents relating to Israel and the Jewish people to appear since the Second World War.

The first specific indictment of Israel spoke of the “occupation” of disputed territories in the West Bank and Gaza as a crime against humanity, as a new form of apartheid, as a threat to international peace and security. While UN Security Council Resolution 1373 adopted in the aftermath of 9/11 would characterize terrorism itself as a threat to international peace and security–which no cause or grievance could ever justify–Tehran and later Durban would characterize terrorist acts against Israel as “resistance” to occupation…

Second, Israel was characterized as being an apartheid state. And since delegates at Durban saw “resistance” against apartheid states as eminently praiseworthy, Durban served to validate terrorist acts against Israel.

Third, Israel was cast as being responsible for all the evils in the world, the “poisoner of the international wells,” the contemporary analogue to the medieval anti-Semitic stereotype of the scheming, murderous Jew. In this regard, the delegates at Tehran and Durban were very much taking their cues from the larger UN itself: In March, 2001, one month after the Tehran conference, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemned Israel, and Israel alone for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Fourth, Israel was accused of the “ethnic cleansing” of “Mandatory Arab Palestine” in 1947-48; of being, in effect, an “original sin” in its very creation, though its international birth certificate was sanctioned by the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. (The Jews, readers will recall, accepted the Partition Resolution, the Arabs rejected it, and launched, in their words, a “war of extermination” against the embryonic Israeli state.)

Fifth, the documents emanating from Durban introduced a new perspective on the notion of “holocausts,” intentionally written in the plural and in lower case. A large number of states even sought to minimize or exclude any references to the Holocaust, or to marginalize and ignore anti-Semitism, while holding up Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as an example of a “real” holocaust… In the ultimate Orwellian inversion, Zionism was held out to be a form of anti-Semitism itself.

As it happens, all of this hateful Durban-speak became a legitimizing instrument for a new wave of anti-Semitism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as evidenced by the following examples:

1. The Jews were blamed for 9/11 in a set of new “protocols” reflective of what some see as a new international Jewish Conspiracy. For example, in many Arab and Muslim countries, teachers, religious leaders, and the media propagated the theory about the 4,000 Jews who supposedly had been tipped off to stay away from work at the World Trade Centre, and the Jewish film crew that supposedly had advance notice to be on the scene to film the planes plowing into the Towers. Today, five years later, polls show that some 50% of British Muslims believe 9/11 to have been an American-Israeli conspiracy.

2. In the anti-terrorism debate that took place at the UN in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Arab states and their supporters opposed any attempt to classify “resistance” as terrorism, thereby appropriating the Durban rhetoric of the de-legitimization of Israel, on the one hand, and the legitimization of terrorism as “resistance” against Israel, on the other.

3. A global campaign against Israeli “apartheid” was launched in the form of post-Durban calls for boycotts and divestment. In an astonishing but revelatory development at a pro-divestment conference in Michigan, a resolution calling for a two-state solution “if Israel were to transform itself and become a real democracy” was defeated, but a resolution calling for the dismantling of Israel as a racist apartheid state was adopted.

4. The first UN Human Rights Commission meeting in the aftermath of Durban–not unlike the one on the road to Durban–sought to single out Israel for differential and discriminatory treatment, with 40% of all the resolutions passed at the meeting indicting Israel, while the major international human rights violators, such as China, Sudan or Iran, enjoyed immunity. This Alice in Wonderland human-rights perversion has been replicated by the newly formed UN Human Rights Council.

5. The convening, in December 2001, of the contracting Parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law was a particularly egregious discriminatory act. For 52 years, the contracting Parties had never met–notwithstanding the genocide in the Balkans, the unspeakable and preventable genocide in Rwanda and the killing fields in Sierra Leone. The first time, and still the only time, that the contracting Parties have ever come together to put a country in the docket was in the aftermath of Durban. That country was Israel…

In sum, Durban became the tipping point for the coalescence of a new, virulent, globalizing anti-Jewishness reminiscent of the atmospherics that pervaded Europe in the 1930s. In its lethal form, this animus finds expression as state-sanctioned genocidal anti-Semitism, such as that embraced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, and its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah…

Anti-Semitism-both old and new-is the canary in evil’s mineshaft. As history has taught us only too well, while it begins with Jews it does not end with Jews. Combating racism and anti-Semitism is everyone’s responsibility.

Irwin Cotler: The Disgrace of Durban- Five Years Later

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