Some 3,000 NGO delegates from around the world termed their conference in Durban, South Africa a success story. Most of the western media, however, characterized it as a missed opportunity or outright failure. The discrepancy between the two evaluations lies not in the deliberation of the conference but rather in its coverage by the western media.
After more than a year of preparation and seven days of discussions, the NGO delegates in 44 regional and interest-based caucuses adopted the NGO forum declaration. They focused on topics such as the treatment of refugees and immigrants, anti-Semitism, the caste system in India, persistent slavery in Africa, and the impact of racism on HIV/AIDS and other health care issues. Out of the hundreds of paragraphs adopted in the final declaration, few addressed Israel/Palestine.
Nonetheless, foreign journalists present in Durban persisted in their coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli bickering outside the conference halls. One British journalist expressed her frustration with her paper’s insistence on yet another update for a third day in a row on Palestinian-Israeli shouting matches. An ecumenical delegate lost her temper at an American journalist who ignored all issues and instead interrogated her 50-member delegation about Israel.
Palestinian Success, Conference Failure: Better organized than pro-Israel NGOs, the Palestinian NGO delegates coordinated their campaign outside the conference with the Durban social forum and the landless movement in South Africa to mount a demonstration comprised of 30 to 40 thousand (not 12,000 as reported) people that carried the “People’s Manifesto” to the official conference.
Meanwhile, within the tents spread over Durban’s football stadium, the conference carried out its deliberations with utmost interest as delegates discussed hundreds of racism-related subjects into the late hours of the night. Naturally, a lot of blame went in the direction of the northern countries, not only from developing country delegates, but also from western human rights and other NGOs. However, there was no less hostility toward India, China, and Nigeria. Solidarity with Palestine, as with the African National Congress in past decades, was a rallying issue of consensus. Israeli occupation and overall colonial treatment of Palestinians was referred to as “racist” and a new form of “apartheid.”
Israel’s Isolation at Conference:
The Israeli press has admitted the failure of the country to take such unofficial forums seriously. Only 12 pro-Israeli Jewish organizations joined the conference. Israel assumed it could depend on the U.S. and certain European countries to insure its impunity in international forums. This turned out to be the case in the official World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) when Israel walked out with the American delegation. However, in the NGO forum, pro-Israeli delegates who demanded labeling “excessive” criticism of Israel anti-Semitism had to walk out alone, when all the caucuses voted against their cynical use of anti-Semitism to protect the likes of the Sharon government.
Washington’s Domestic Agenda:
The Bush administration had come to Israel’s rescue well before the conference when it decided to send a low-level delegation to Durban. It vowed not to tolerate anybody “picking on” its junior ally, warning against equating Zionism with racism. But Zionism was not being equated with racism at the conference. It was already dropped from the draft document developed during the last of a series of consultations in Geneva prior to the conference. Other phrases that criticized Israel where put in brackets, which underlines lack of agreement. Moreover, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat went along with the wishes of political leader and civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson and promised that the question of Zionism would not be invoked at the WCAR.
The Bush administration had topics other than Israel on its mind. The White House used the Israeli excuse to walk away from America’s obligations in the WCAR where explicit apology for slavery, debt cancellation, increased aid, and reparations were undesirable items on the agenda of the conference. The Bush administration was not, and will never be, in a mood to discuss such issues seriously, let alone in an international conference under UN auspices. The Bush administration derailed the Conference in order to avoid responsibility for America’s racist record. The conservative right-wing of the Republican Party would have exploded if the administration had to apologize for past slavery and commit to repatriations, in an international UN-sponsored forum no less. Any compromise, regardless how meager, could translate into a victory for the civil rights movement and a Democratic Party gain.
Any such eventuality is a non-starter for the Bush White House. Constantly reminded how he lost the vote count in the last presidential elections despite his technical victory, he can use all the local support he can get. Pleasing Israel’s friends in the U.S. could also help garner more support for his administration in Congress and in the next elections. Technically, this was a successful maneuver of achieving three goals with one walkout.
Creating Conflicting Interests: Prior to and during the conference, influential friends of Israel lobbied African countries to drop the Palestinian issue in the official and NGO WCAR, offering to help them raise the question of repatriation, hence creating a conflict of interest between the two issues. Certain African states, including the South African government, were enticed by the offer, especially when considering the alternative: torpedoing the conference all together. The trick worked in some limited circles, and was adopted by the media. The high profile of the Palestinian issue was erroneously considered a net loss to African issues and other important topics. In the NGO forum no such hierarchy of issues was tolerated. But the media coverage insisted on a conflict of interest, and the U.S. exasperated the issue when it walked out on the third day of the official conference claiming “offensive language” regarding Israel. One wonders why it does not walk out of the UN when similar language is commonly used to accurately describe Israel’s colonialist practices.
Palestine and International Civil Society: As of 6 September, Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was refusing to receive and endorse the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action in order to transmit it to WCAR. She has been critical of language used to characterize Israel. But while some delegates preferred other terms than “genocide” and a more careful language in the final document, they did not want to distance themselves from the all-encompassing historical document. Nor should Robinson reject the result of a democratic and transparent process in the NGO forum.
The success of the NGO conference in Durban is primarily a victory for international civil society. Bonding together in South Africa, this is only the first step toward a new international agenda coming from civil society organizations and popular movements in an interdependent world where the global is increasingly imposing itself on the local. Durban has refocused the attention on this emerging reality and connecting local causes of discrimination and racism within a new international movement of struggling for a better world.
If the Palestinian cause is to gain momentum and gain international support, it must continue from where Durban has left off, by relocating from the back door of the White House into the center of the American and international solidarity and human rights movement. Already, preparations are underway to strategize with the Dalits, the anti-apartheid, the civil rights, and the human rights movements. Only popular international pressure could urge the U.S. to put an end to Israel’s impunity and allow for a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians do not have to reinvent the wheel on this one.
Marwan Bishara is a journalist and author.