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Will this September’s UN anti-racism conference in New York be yet another anti-Semitic, anti-Israel hatefest — or will it actually work to forward human rights?
Known as Durban III, the confab comes 10 years after the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
At Durban I, nearly 1,500 "nongovernmental organizations" — NGOs, the term in UN-speak for activist groups of all kinds — hijacked the language and values of human rights to turn the conference’s NGO Forum into a prolonged Israel-bash, with huge dollops of anti-Semitism. The forum "declare[d] Israel as a racist, apartheid state," and "Israel’s brand of apartheid" to be "a crime against humanity" and "call[ed] upon the international community to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state."
Real international human-rights issues — from the many African civil wars to the lack of women’s and minority rights in large parts of Asia — went largely ignored.
The NGO activists (including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) left the conference with a "Durban strategy" — coordinated plans to isolate and delegitimize Israel, using multiple international venues. More, they’d formed a strong and lasting network to do it.
In the years since, NGOs have methodically implemented their political war against Israel, questioning Israel’s right to exist and invoking the rhetoric of "apartheid" at every turn. The strategy includes "lawfare" — legal cases brought against Israeli officials in every conceivable forum — as well as "BDS" campaigns, which promote boycotts of Israel, di vestment from Israel by foreign investors (especially such institutions as universities) and sanctions against the Jewish state for its supposed human-rights violations.
The groups work with institutions like the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court to further isolate Israel. Typically, as the UN’s embrace of the inflammatory and false Goldstone Report shows, most international bodies are willing to treat even wild NGO allegations as serious analysis.
The good news is that the 2009 Durban Review Conference, or Durban II, was not a repeat of Durban I. There was no official NGO Forum, and NGO events were mainly held in small rooms on the margins of the conference. Anti-Israel activists had to conduct their "Israel Review" the weekend before the official conference, at a venue far away from the UN complex in Geneva, Switzerland.
Most important, the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic voices in Geneva were drowned out by a well-coordinated effort by Jewish groups from across the world. Activists on the ground held public rallies, participated in relevant sessions in the UN building and monitored NGO activities surrounding the conference.
Yet the "Durban process" continues. NGOs press the anti-Israel agenda at "mini-Durbans" — UN-sponsored conferences and at sessions before the UN Human Rights Council — and through lawfare campaigning.
New York City, the site of Durban III, is more accessible and visible than Geneva — allowing radical activists, even those without official accreditation, to get media attention. Groups such as Adalah-NY, CodePink and Jewish Voices for Peace have already conducted BDS demonstrations in the New York area, and may exploit Durban III for further campaigns.
Happily, New York is also home to many pro-Israel organizations, capable of a strong and coordinated impact at the conference.
The most important step in avoiding a hatefest is for the UN to again forego an NGO Forum at Durban III. That raises the likelihood that real human-rights abuses will get the attention they deserve.
Durban III also is a chance for UN agencies to examine their own processes, and revamp their agendas and members as needed. If the United Nations addresses its own internal issues, NGOs and their funders will be marginalized.
The 10-year anniversary of Durban I should be marked with a conference that, in contrast to the earlier efforts, avoids the anti-Israel obsession and actually takes significant steps to end racism and human-rights abuses.
Jason Edelstein is communications director of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution that promotes account ability among NGOs that claim to protect human rights in the Middle East.