The United Nations launched the “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR),” one of the biggest global initiatives to combat racism in 2001 at a conference in Durban, South Africa. It was a grand project. Built on UN initiatives from the 70s and 80s and symbolically held in the country where the last great battle against apartheid was won, the conference adopted a comprehensive framework for tackling one of the biggest scourges of human history.
WCAR acknowledged the disastrous consequences of racism and expressed “regret” for the “massive human suffering and the tragic plight of millions of men, women, and children caused by slavery, the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, apartheid, colonialism, and genocide.” Calling on member states to honour the memory of the victims of past tragedies, it urged the global community to affirm that, wherever and whenever racism and its related horrors occurred, they must be condemned and their recurrence prevented.
A wide range of measures were adopted to combat racism in all its manifestations, including a declaration to tackle discrimination as well as a programme of action. The declaration adopted “measures of prevention, education, and protection aimed at the eradication of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance at the national, regional and international levels.”
Member states agreed on a set of programmes urging countries to “introduce and, as applicable, to reinforce anti-discrimination and anti-racism components in human rights programmes in school curricula, to develop and improve relevant educational material, including history and other textbooks, and to ensure that all teachers are effectively trained and adequately motivated to shape attitudes and behavioural patterns, based on the principles of non-discrimination, mutual respect, and tolerance.”
The declaration also made specific references to Israel and Palestine. “We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion,” the declaration said.
Regarding the five million Palestinian refugees, descendants of the indigenous community ethnically cleansed from their homes and villages by Zionist paramilitary groups, the declaration said: “We recognize the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties in dignity and safety and urge all States to facilitate such return.”
WCAR’s draft resolution also included a paragraph which triggered a walk-out by the representatives of the US and Israel. The reason for their outrage was a sentence in the statement which stated the following: “The World Conference recognizes with deep concern the increase of racist practices of Zionism and anti-Semitism in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on discriminatory ideas, in particular, the Zionist movement which is based on racial superiority.” Though this paragraph was dropped in the final draft, WCAR has been the target of a vicious campaign led by pro-Israel groups ever since.
In the two decades following the 2001 launch, the UN held two high-level conferences to review progress, one in 2009 informally dubbed Durban II and another in 2011 referred to as Durban III. Though the US participated in initial negotiations, the American delegation withdrew under instructions from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Because of its withdrawal, the US did not pay $250,000 in voluntary contributions to WCAR.
Two decades on, in marking the 20-year anniversary of what many see as a major milestone in the fight against racism, the UN will bring together representatives from nearly every member state for a one-day meeting in New York this September. As part of its promotion for Durban IV the world body has released a two and half minute video of musicians, artists, activists, and several A-star celebrities calling to “unite against racism”.
The values promoted by the global initiative to combat racism are as uncontroversial as any multilateral cause can be. It’s curious, therefore, to say the least, to see WCAR being subjected to a hostile campaign lead by Israel and its allies. Consequently, the US along with the UK, Australia, and Canada will boycott this year’s meeting which pro-Israelis have dubbed a “festival of Jew-hate.” In its comment announcing the UK’s decision not to attend the conference the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) said: “Following historic concerns regarding antisemitism, the UK has decided not to attend the UN’s Durban Conference anniversary event later this year.”
Seeking clarification from FCDO, MEMO contacted the ministry asking if it can cite an example where the WCAR has expressed anti-Semitic remarks and to explain if the UK considers criticism of Israel to be a form of racism against Jews. It also asked for a response to the findings of prominent human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem concerning structural racism within Israel. Given that both have concluded that the Zionist state is guilty of the crime of apartheid, does the UK have any concerns over systematic racism against non-Jews in the occupied West Bank in light of such reports, which were highlighted recently by the flag march where far-right Israeli settlers chanted “death to Arabs“? In its reply, the FCDO did not respond to the questions posed except to say that it was boycotting September’s meeting in New York along with the US, Australia, and Canada due to “historic concerns” over anti-Semitism.
The decision to boycott an international conference against racism in support of a country denounced not only by leading rights groups over its practice of apartheid but also its former foreign envoys, is extremely baffling to say the least. As is the fact that the boycott follows a renewed pledge by US President Joe Biden to combat discrimination. “Racism, xenophobia, nativism, and other forms of intolerance are not problems unique to the United States,” said Biden during International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. “They are global problems. They are human problems that we all need to recognize, name, and dismantle.” Biden, who has been keen to distinguish himself from his predecessor Donald Trump through greater multilateral engagement pledged that under his administration, the United States will lead the conversation on “painful issues” such as racism at home, in international institutions, and around the world.
As is so often the case, the gap between rhetoric and practice is at its widest when it comes to western policy on Israel and Palestine. Dubbed “Progressive Except for Palestine”, this phenomenon has tainted every aspect of western policy towards Israel. But as Professor Stephen Walt writes in Foreign Policy magazine in an article calling to end America’s “special relationship with Israel,” Washington’s blind support for Israel can no longer be justified. Israel is not a liberal democracy where people of all religions and races have equal rights, argues Walt, pointing to the racial hierarchy enjoyed by Jews over non-Jews under the Zionist regime. Support for Israel, explained the Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, causes more problems for the US than it solves, adding that decades of brutal Israeli persecution of Palestinians have destroyed the moral case for such assistance.
Walt may be on to something. While the US and the West in general may have regarded Israel a geopolitical asset in pushing back against communism and Arab nationalism in the past, their ongoing support for the occupation state which practices apartheid has become nothing but an albatross around their necks.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.