Hiding behind Israel’s apartheid regime and the United States, the European Union have joined the list of countries which are held to account for racist crimes in Durban, South Africa, at the World Conference Against Racism.
Instead of tackling racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other related intolerance, these countries, former and current colonial powers, racist states, and supporters of both current and past apartheid regimes refuse to acknowledge wrongs of the past and correct the wrongs of today. The United States has tried to silence the international community, the Third World in particular, to discuss two important issues which any conference on racism can impossibly ignore, namely, apartheid Israel and reparations for slavery and colonialism.
The final declaration of the UN World Conference Against Racism has denied the voice of victims and can only be described as a brand of white-washing and politicising of racism issues by various governments, in particular, the United States and member states of the European Union. Although the conference marked the first time that human rights groups were allowed to participate, the governmental conference refused to hear the voices of victims and deleted any and all references to the actual experiences of victims of racism and methods to combat that racism, and replaced them with watered-down and politicised language that bears little relevance to this conference.
In the end, the conference produced a declaration and program of action that failed to name perpetrators of racism and to hold them effectively accountable for their actions. The effort to dilute the text on Israel was led on behalf of the 15 members of the European Union and its 13 applicant countries by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, as his country currently holds the EU presidency.
The United States and Israel pulled their delegations from the World Conference Against Racism over a demand that Israel be criticized for its “racist practices.” That language was removed from the final declaration, but a reference to “the plight of the Palestinians” and the recognition of “the right of refugees to return voluntarily to their homes and properties” remained.
Prior to and during the conference, influential friends of Israel lobbied African countries to drop the Palestinian issue in the official conference and the parallel NGO Forum, 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 circles, and was adopted by the international media. In the NGO forum there was no 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. However, the reason was the basic solidarity that the Africans feel with the Palestinians, who are still today under the heel of Western colonialism and their gratitude to Palestinians and other non-aligned movements for standing by them in their struggle against apartheid and colonialism. Publicly, the Africans lashed out mainly
at the United States for walking out of the conference. Many at the
conference accused the Americans of taking advantage of the Israeli issue in order to evade the question of apologizing and paying reparations for the slavery regime that was in force in the United States itself until the mid-19th century.
At first the Western Bloc was adamantly opposed to having the conference resolutions take note of the rights of the African peoples and cite the right of the victims of slavery to compensation for their suffering. Even on the question of how to relate to the past, there was an argument within the Western Bloc over whether to “apologize” for slavery and colonialism or to demand that the document make do with expressing “regret.” While most of the European countries agreed to apologize, four of them – Britain, Holland, Spain and Portugal (and not by chance, as these were the major colonial powers, in addition to France) – and the United States were sharply opposed to the use of the word “apology.” This objection was clearly due to concern that the term “apology” would be meaning the acknowledgment of responsibility and therefore could lead to legal damage suits.
Government delegates and UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson called the NGO Forum documents “hurtful” and “inappropriate”. Mrs. Robinson made a statement on 7 September 2001, explaining her reservations of the document, in particular, to paragraph 418 that calls for the acknowledgement that racist practices conducted in the name of zionism are racist and secondly, paragraph 419 that calls for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal “to investigate and bring to justice those who may be guilty of war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing and the crime of apartheid which amount to crimes against humanity that have been or continue to be perpetrated in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.
The United Nations General Assembly and the UN Commission of Human Rights both described the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon as an “act of genocide”. References in the NGO document to “acts of genocide” are an accurate reflection of specific historical events on the basis of the Genocide Convention of 1948. Palestinians should not be precluded from using such terms. Likewise, there has been evidence of the use of ethnic cleansing methods to drive out Palestinians, including during the wars of 1948 and 1967 to date.
Moreover, Israeli practices fulfil 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. In August, the African National Congress stated: “Until its defeat, South Africa’s apartheid regime found much in common with their Israeli counterparts”, adding that “South Africans, having defeated apartheid, have a direct stake in the eradication of apartheid practices on a global scale, and in the plight of the Palestinian people in particular. Our task is to labour and struggle humanely to confront military occupation, discriminatory actions and gross violations of human rights.”
As the world realised with South Africa by 1966, mere words of condemnation of a system, entrenched in racism, will have no bearing until the underlying racism is exposed for what it is and that system tackled effectively through imposition of mandatory sanctions. After 53-years of racist oppression imposed by an exclusivist, exclusionary and expansionist state, and a 34-year colonial military occupation, the world has not yet even reached that same level of general consensus that existed in the case of South Africa – that what lies at the heart of Israel’s on-going system of human rights violations is a racist system.
Palestinians are not the only victims of racism. They stand united in full solidarity and support for all victims of racism, including those seeking reparations such as the Africans and African descendants and indigenous peoples and all others seeking a platform and voice that is otherwise being denied to them. Palestinians like other victims of racism demand that the perpetrators be named and condemned. As in the case of apartheid South Africa, Israel’s perpetration of on-going human rights violations and its racist system need to be tackled for the sake of world peace and security. Our common humanity demands that these forms of extreme racism, including Israel’s brand of apartheid, be effectively combated.
The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda), ElectronicIntifada.net and LAW -The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, in Jerusalem.