"The Centrality of NGOs in the Durban Strategy"

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Steinberg, Gerald M. “The Centrality of NGOs in the Durban Strategy.” Yale Israel Journal 9 (Summer 2006).


In the past fifty years, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) focusing on human rights issues have become highly influential actors in international politics in general, and in the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. The NGO community constitutes a wealthy and powerful network that has propelled the anti-Israeli agenda in international frameworks such as the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHCHR) and the 2001 UN Conference against Racism, held in Durban. These NGOs have played a central role in the false charges of “massacre” and “war crimes” during the Israeli military’s anti-terror operation in Jenin (Defensive Shield) in April 2002, the portrayal of Israel’s separation barrier as “the apartheid wall,” and the promotion of academic boycotts and divestment. Their reports, press releases, and political lobbying campaigns constitute a powerful source of “soft power,”[1] and they have a powerful influence in the United Nations, the media, and academia.

Appropriating the rhetoric of universal human rights to pursue narrow political and ideological goals, and protected by a “halo effect,” the NGO community has also largely avoided analysis and accountability for its actions.[2] The “halo effect” is the term used to refer to the degree to which reports and statements made by prominent NGOs are routinely accepted at face value and without question by journalists, diplomats, academics and others, who act as force multipliers for the NGO agendas.[3]

The “halo effect” is based, in large part, on the historical development of human rights norms, including the post-Holocaust conventions and treaties, such as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, both of which were adopted in 1948.[4] The emphasis on these norms has grown continuously, and, as Irwin Cotler has noted, human rights now constitutes the new secular religion.[5] As a result, the institutional embodiment of human rights practices has extended from the United Nations and individual governments to non-governmental organizations.

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