What a pleasure it is to hail a Canadian foreign policy decision that’s been made boldly, was stated clearly, and is already having an impact.
Canada’s decision to boycott “Durban II,” the United Nation’s second World Conference Against Racism, scheduled for 2009, made Canada the leader in this fight against anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and racism. In 2001, under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, Canada dithered as the important conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, became an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hatefest. This time, Canada was the first nation to repudiate the charade and to refuse to fund NGOs who behaved so miserably last time.
Following Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s moral move, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced a more conditional boycott. Hailing “Canada’s courage,” Livni told the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism that Israel would not participate “unless it is proven that the conference will not be used as a platform for further anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic behaviour.”
The United States has proceeded more cautiously, considering that President George W. Bush doesn’t want to handcuff his successor. Still, in December, the United States voted against the UN budget because part of the money would fund Durban II. And the Americans have also talked about boycotting the conference’s preparatory meetings, which were so vitriolic last time. These prep sessions will probably be equally toxic, considering that Libya is chairing, Cuba is vice-chair, Iran is on the committee, and the biased UN human rights council backs the whole effort. U.S. Jews need to ask their presidential candidates to promise to oppose Durban, and to fight the broader issue of UN bias.
But the effort must move beyond the Canadians, Americans and Israelis. Durban’s poison cannot be fought alone. Leaders must convince the Europeans and the Africans to avoid another debacle.
The organized Jewish community and Israel should invite Mary Robinson to lead the effort to convince Europe. Robinson is the former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights who presided over the first Durban disaster. In the waning days of the conference, she finally denounced the anti-Semitism on display there. Since then, especially when activists have protested her many academic honours, she has insisted that she did all she could to stop the ugliness in 2001.
Addressing the graduates at Emory University in 2004, where there was an uproar about her appearance similar to the uproar I started over her honorary doctorate at McGill University, Robinson proclaimed: “Let me just say again that I find the very concept of anti-Semitism repulsive, that I have taken action against it all my life, that my only motivation at all times has been to further the cause of human rights for all people.” She also acknowledged the “hurt and pain, which the Durban process evoked.”
Robinson now has an opportunity to expunge the stain on her record from the first Durban conference and prove the sincerity of her subsequent announcements. If she took the lead in spurring the Europeans to avoid the mistakes of last time – including monitoring the preparatory conferences – she would help undo the damage that the first conference did to the cause of human rights.
Similarly, Africans – and African-Americans – must be mobilized on this issue. The sad truth is that the ugly, unnecessary, irrelevant demonization of Israel and Jews that occurred in Durban, 2001, distracted many from the important work against racism the conference had convened to fight. I spoke to Africans who viewed the whole fight over Israel as a smokescreen to help Europeans avoid being held accountable for centuries of racism. Israeli, Canadian, and American diplomats should send a clear message to their African colleagues. The Africans should tell their Middle Eastern friends to keep the focus on racism – meaning black-white issues – rather than derailing the conference with an anti-Semitic food fight. In the United States, leaders such as former secretary of state Colin Powell – who was so disappointed by the outcome last time – should be invited to make a worldwide call to keep the focus on racism and away from Israeli-Arab or Jewish-Muslim tensions.
Canada has taken an honourable and heroic stand. Canada has made an important start. The time has come to start building the right coalitions of conscience to avoid another unconscionable hatefest – in the formal conference and among NGOs as well.