UN Racism Conference Too Broad To Succeed

7 September 2001

By Stentor Danielson

On Monday, the United States dealt a potentially critical blow to the United Nations racism conference being held in Durban, South Africa when it withdrew its delegation in protest over language in the conference resolution which labeled Israeli treatment of Palestinians as racist. The Israeli delegation followed suit. The withdrawal mirrored Secretary of State Colin Powell's earlier decision not to attend the conference because the anti-Israeli language, as well as references to reparations for slavery demanded by some African nations, was not removed from the draft of the conference resolution.

The U.S. withdrawal has raised outcries from those who believed that, regardless of the resolution's stance on Israel, U.S. presence was important to furthering efforts to stamp out other forms of racism. Others have accused the U.S. of using the Israel issue as an excuse to avoid discussing slavery reparations. Both of these criticisms point out the problem with the conference its scope is far too broad to lead to meaningful action instead of political posturing. The problem should have been apparent from the full title of the conference: the UN Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Discrimination. The conference lists as issues to be discussed, trafficking in women and children, migration and discrimination, gender and racial discrimination, racism against indigenous peoples and protection of minority rights. Any one of those could have been the topic of an entire conference, and even then would have been too broad for the development of workable solutions.

As it is, the conference is reduced to making a series of condemnations against a variety of very complex situations. The draft resolution incorporates little in the way of solutions, simply listing problems and urging attention to be directed to them. This opens the door for political posturing and backing nations into an up-or-down vote on issues that are far from black and white.

The issue of Israeli "racism" against the Palestinians is a good example. The issue has a politically charged history, as a UN resolution equating Zionism with racism was adopted in 1975 and only repealed in 1991. Though the official resolution text of the Durban conference does not incorporate the old Zionism equals racism equation, the implication is clearly there.

U.S. and Israeli negotiators rightly saw that the Arab countries that backed the anti-Israel language as making a political move and hijacking the conference resolution to take a shot at Israel (the desire for which may be motivated in some circles by anti-Semitism). But in refusing to consider the issue, they deflect attention from the very real, and in some respects racist, maltreatment of Palestinians. Israeli policy toward Palestinians is not just or always racism, and it is ludicrous to lump it under the same heading as discriminatory hiring of Latinos in the U.S. or denial of Aboriginal rights in Australia. At the same time, removing it from consideration would seem to give approval to a system that regularly tramples on the rights of Palestinians and keeps them second-class citizens.

There is undeniably racism on both sides of the conflict in Israel and its occupied territories. Both Israelis and Palestinians harbor stereotypes of each other that are as damaging as those stereotypes routinely and rightly condemned when white Americans or South Africans hold them against their black neighbors. Jewish settlers in the West Bank are often among the worst perpetrators and victims. These sentiments play out in different ways as the policies of the Israeli government are made.

The problem is that there is much more to the Israeli-Palestinian situation than just racism. There are longstanding issues of religious conflict, both through simple intolerance and where the precepts of Islam and Judaism are in direct opposition (including the ownership of the Temple Mount). There are military and security issues; complicated by the fact that Israel is occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip in direct contradiction to longstanding UN resolutions. There are demographic complications regarding the peopling of occupied territory with Jewish settlers and the possibility of the return of Palestinian refugees ousted from Israel.

However, the wide scope of the UN conference prohibits detailed discussion of any of these complications and how they intertwine with anti-Semitism and anti-Arabism. The resolution is reduced to posturing over supporting either Israel or the Palestinians.The long, difficult and often unsuccessful history of negotiations stretching from Oslo to Camp David and beyond should make it obvious that a condemnation of racism is a completely inadequate and useless response to the feelings of Israelis and Palestinians toward each other.

Furthermore, conflict over the Israeli issue has overshadowed the other efforts being made at the conference. South Africa and European nations have redoubled efforts to resolve the dispute in the wake of U.S. and Israeli departure from the conference. But this necessarily distracts them from working on other issues, particularly ones where there is some agreement, and thus the possibility of making meaningful progress. In the interests of making a show of solidarity against racism, conference participants and organizers have put aside any search for ways to apply the agreement to solving the problems it condemns.

The departure of the United States and Israel also means that these two voices cannot be heard on any other issue. The absence of the United States will be especially noticeable and crippling when reparations for slavery are discussed. As one of the key players in the slave trade, and the nation most able to make reparation payments (and thus the most tempting target for reparations claims), the United States cannot afford to let negotiations about reparations occur without American input. The alternative is a situation of demands, refusal, conflict and ultimately a winner-loser solution.

The UN racism conference was simply too broad. It allowed itself to consider too many issues, turning complex situations - demanding equally complex solutions - into two-sentence condemnations of racism, to be voted yea or nay. This allowed the proceedings to become a forum for political posturing by Arab nations and the United States. While such actions may help win votes from the nations' pro-Palestinian and Jewish constituencies, it does nothing to remove the hateful caricatures in the Palestinian press and schools, or ease conditions in the West Bank that resemble conference host South Africa's recent apartheid system.

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