OF ALL the many advances of the past hundred years – scientific, technological, social – few better exemplify humanity’s moral progress than the battle fought against racism across the globe. The enemy has not, of course, been defeated,but the second half of the 20th century saw many victories, in many parts of the world, and nowhere more dramatically and decisively than in South Africa. Where else then but here, was a more fitting venue for the first United Nations World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban in 2001. And ultimately, what could have been more tragic than the Orwellian transformation of a Conference Against Racism into an arena for the wholesale propagation of anti-Semitism. The seeds were sown several months prior to the conference, at a preparatory meeting in Tehran intended to produce an agreed Declaration against Racism and a Plan of Action.

In a remarkable foretaste of what was to come, Israelis and representatives of many Jewish non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were denied visas and could not take part. The scene was set for the infamous NGO forum of the 2001 Durban Conference where one country and one country alone was singled out for vilification: Israel, where pamphlets and posters were distributed equating Israel with Nazi Germany. This was an anti-racism event where NGOs openly lauded Hitler for his attempt to wipe out the Jews of Europe and bemoaned his failure to finish the job. On sale at the conference were copies of the century-old
anti-Semitic tract, Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Finally, the NGO forum produced a declaration accusing Israel of “acts of genocide” and “apartheid”. The tragedy of Durban was twofold: on the one hand, the despicable use of an antiracism conference as a platform for anti-Semitism, and on the other, the appalling missed opportunity. Countries with some of the worst human rights records on the planet, such as Iran and Syria, dictated the agenda, and NGOs with a mandate to address human rights abuses, were guided by an obsessive desire to demonise Israel. It would appear now that history is in danger of repeating itself. A follow-up conference to Durban has been scheduled for 2009, officially called the Durban Review Conference. What then are the chances of this summit actually addressing real manifestations of racism and real human rights disaster zones? The signs do not look good. The preparatory meeting this year is scheduled to take place over the Jewish festival of Passover, ensuring that most Jewish NGOs will notbe able to attend. Requests that the meeting be moved, have fallen on deaf ears. This is depressing but hardly surprising, given the precedents set; still less so when one considers that the UN member state chairing the event is Libya, a country implacably opposed to Israel’s very existence which expelled its Jewish population in 1967.

In 2001, Israel and the US withdrew their delegations from the conference in protest at the way events were proceeding. This time it appears that many states, concerned about a repeat performance, will not even bother to turn up in the first place.Canada has already declared its intention not to attend. In a recent statement, Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier said: “Unfortunately, that (2001) conference degenerated into open and divisive expressions of intolerance and anti-Semitism that undermined the principles of the United Nations and the very goals the conference sought to achieve… I had hoped that the preparatory process for the 2009 Durban Review Conference would remedy the mistakes of the past. We have concluded that, despite our efforts, it will not.”

It remains to be seen which countries follow their lead, but what is clear is that the same NGOs who allowed the 2001 summit to become such a debacle, are participating again this time around. And, far from modifying
their positions on Israel, most of these organisations have used Durban as the launching-pad for a systematic, unrelenting campaign of demonisation and delegitimisation of the Jewish state. The NGO Forum in Durban was just the beginning of the attempt by these groups to, in the name of human rights, isolate Israel and render it the “new South Africa”, in particular by throwing the word “apartheid” around with a casual disregard for its actual meaning.

As NGOs recruit Arab members of the Israeli parliament to support their cause by decrying Israeli “apartheid”, South Africans could be forgiven a wry smile as they consider the absolute impossibility of blacks being members of parliament in apartheid South Africa. By the same token, to recollect the comprehensive racial segregation of those years, is to cast absurdity on the “antiapartheid” campaigns launched to boycott Israeli academics, who teach at universities where Jewish and Arab students study together and where nothing but academic achievement determines who is and is not admitted. However, it is not too late for governments and individuals to prevent “Durban II” from becoming a fiasco of the same order. Human rights and anti-racism are causes around which all nations should coalesce and the path to follow is well-trodden, by South Africa above all. The exploitation of these causes by NGOs driven by extremism and hate, is a contemptible deviation from that path and the more their actions are exposed and condemned, the more support and attention can be focused on the work of genuine human rights and anti-racism activists.

Paul Gross works for NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based organisation promoting critical debate and accountability of human rights NGOs in the Arab-Israeli conflict. More information at www.ngo-monitor.org