Remember Durban

Thousands took the streets of Durban to protest


Two years ago I attended the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR). At that time I was part of the Palestinian delegation at the NGO Forum. Two years after the conference, Israel’s apartheid policies have only deepened and become systematic and widespread.

Although reading the final governmental document coming out of Durban and the brazen walk out of the United States from the entire conference would suggest a failure of the conference, the WCAR was an important and, at times, amazing event.

At Durban, the primary objectives of the Palestinian delegates was to popularize their cause in front of an international audience, to articulate their demands to end racist military occupation, apartheid and oppression and to stop the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.

The back side of the most popular shirts seen at the NGO Forum

The “failure” of the conference was not due to the suggested claim that Palestinians “hijacked the conference” but to the lack of connection between the NGO Forum and the UN governmental conference. There was little to no opportunity to impact the UN governmental conference. This was not only due to the refusal of Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to receive and endorse the NGO Forum Declaration and Programme of Action but also to several international human rights organizations, who tried to, in their words, “refocus” the NGO challenge to the governments in anticipation of their disagreements with the final NGO declaration.

At a press conference these international organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, wanted to move the debate away from Palestine and toward other issues, such as the rights of Dalits and Roma, racial discrimination in criminal justice systems, and the dire health issues such as HIV/AIDS. Some groups, such as the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights moved to distance themselves from what they felt was “inaccurate and inflammatory” language against Israel and some wanted to criticize the decision to make the final document, a “collection of voices from the victims” as opposed to a “consensus document” drafted to correspond to the specific language of the governmental document.

Protest in Durban

Many NGOs from various parts of the world at the WCAR fundamentally disagreed with all of their assumptions. They asked: “Who are these groups and who and what do they represent?” At a conference in South Africa where the vast majority of delegates rallied behind the lead demands of reparations and Palestinian rights, they asked: “Who are these ‘human rights’ groups to claim they represent the interests of Africans, Blacks, and Palestinians?” None of them had a base in any of those oppressed constituencies.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Robinson failed to carry the message of the voices of victims throughout the world to the governments. In refusing to accept the document and pass it on the Government plenary, and thereby delaying receipt of the document by Government representatives, Mrs. Robinson rejected the voices of all the victims of racism and the thousands of delegates who were present at the NGO Forum. Mrs. Robinson’s action prejudiced the ability of all the NGO communities to influence the processes at the governmental plenary.

Mrs. Robinson refused to carry the message to the governments because she voiced objection to language in the Declaration of the NGO Forum. Perhaps she was influenced by governments or some of the international human rights organizations.

However, Palestinians as victims of racism exercised their rights at the NGO Forum to describe their experiences of racially-motivated human rights violations perpetrated against them, and have done so with specific reference to international human rights and humanitarian law standards and norms, including in relation to acts of genocide, systematic perpetration of war crimes, and the crime of apartheid.

Protest in Durban

Specific acts of genocide have included the massacre of 3,500 Palestinian civilians of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon of 1982, in respect of which the Israeli Kahan Commission found the then Defence Minister, Ariel Sharon indirectly responsible. The UN General Assembly itself in UN Resolution 123 (A/RES/37/123) and the UN Commission of Human Rights in a resolution (E/CN.4/RES/1985/4) have both described the massacre as an “act of genocide” and imputed responsibility to the State of Israel. Likewise, references of “acts of genocide” in the NGO Forum Declaration impute genocidal intent to those perpetrators of, or those responsible, for such acts, who have included individual Jewish Israelis and the State of Israel. These references do not impute genocidal intent to all Jews or all Jewish Israelis. No individual or State should enjoy impunity for their crimes - references to “acts of genocide” are an accurate reflection of specific historical incidents on the basis of the Genocide Convention of 1948.

Accordingly, Palestinians should not have been precluded from using such terms. One NGO delegate from the United States said: “You don’t criticize the Vietnamese when they are having napalm dropped on them by your own government. And you don’t criticize the Palestinians for excessive language, unless you want to side with the United States and Israel.”

Moreover, Israel’s systematic perpetration of grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949 (namely war crimes) have been documented by a number of national, regional, international, NGOs, Governmental and UN bodies, including the UN Inquiry Commission in their report of March 2001.

There has been evidence of the use of ethnic cleansing methods to drive out Palestinians including during the 1948 war, and since 1967 to date from the occupied Palestinian Territories. Ethnic cleansing methods used have included uprooting by military attacks; arbitrary arrests and detention/unfair trials; attacks on specific vulnerable groups including women and children; destruction and confiscation of property, land and homes; and harassment designed to make life so unbearable that people leave.

In Durban, Palestinians called for acknowledgement that what underlies these violations is racism, and have called for solidarity in their struggle to fight all forms of that racism including Israel’s brand of apartheid. Israeli practices fulful the elements of the crime of apartheid as defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, including by racial segregation and discrimination, and inhuman acts designed to establish domination of one group over the other. In addition, South African governmental and civil society representatives have drawn clear parallels with the system of apartheid practiced in South Africa with that used by the Israeli apartheid regime.

The world governments rejected this language and passed a far more conciliatory position that, in essence, represented a victory for the United States and Israeli line on the subject. The language of the UN governments included no criticisms whatsoever of Israeli racism, brutality, or apartheid. In the end, the victims of racism were blamed for the ultimate “failure” of the World Conference Against Racism by seeking to have their daily suffering from racism addressed, whomever they may be, including the Palestinians and those victims seeking reparations.

Nonetheless, the expansion of support for the Palestinian movement cannot be understood by the cold, harsh words of the WCAR governmental document. After all, one delegate asked: “If it was a victory for the US and Israel, why did the US need to walk out?” So, who hijacked the conference? At a press conference, organized by the South African Independent Media Center on August 27, 2001, one European delegate asked: “Don’t you think the Palestinian charges against Israel were deflecting from the other key issues we’re trying to raise here?”

Oupa Lehulere, who is affiliated with the Durban Social Forum, replied: “That was the same criticism some people raised about the anti-apartheid struggle for decades, that somehow our struggle against apartheid was ‘crowding out’ other causes. We thought that the struggle against the apartheid regime was in fact giving a focus to an international movement against racism. Today, the Palestinian struggle is on the frontlines. If the Palestinians win, we all win.”

Perhaps in September 2001, the world was not ready to accept the notion that Israel in fact is practicing apartheid. Perhaps it takes a while to digest the cruel truth. More and more people who make an effort to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and look for creative solutions are convinced that the occupation must end and that people need to live in freedom and be respected on the basis of equality.

Arjan El Fassed is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. In August/September 2001 he was part of the Palestinian NGO delegation to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

Related Links:

  • NGO Forum Declaration (PDF)
  • Governmental Report of the World Conference Against Racism
  • Governmental Declaration and Programme of Action (PDF)