As UN revisits an painful chapter, some wonder why

September 15, 2011 - 4:30 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N.'s first conference on racism ended up in fierce acrimony, with accusations that it was hijacked to bash Israel, Zionism and Jews.

Ten years after that event in Durban, South Africa, member states are meeting again on the same subject, and some are wondering why anyone would want to remember a gathering that gave its organizers such a black eye.

The bitterness is still evident as next Thursday's daylong meeting, dubbed Durban III, approaches. The U.S., which walked out of the 2001 event and boycotted the 2009 follow-up, is shunning this one too. So are Australia, Canada and Israel, along with six European countries — Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

"Israel will always be on the front lines of the fight against racism," Karean Peretz, its U.N. mission spokeswoman, said Thursday. "However, we refuse to participate in the commemoration of a conference that sought to legitimize hatred, intolerance, and prejudice against the state of Israel, under the banner of combating racism."

The U.N. maintains that its 2001 event was unfairly tarred as anti-Semitic, and that it was on the sidelines, among the nongovernmental organizations, that "the debate reached a low point when virulently anti-Semitic materials were circulated."

A competing event called "Perils of Global Intolerance at the United Nations" is scheduled across the street from U.N. headquarters at the same time next week, featuring John Bolton, the Bush administration's U.N. ambassador; Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel; and Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate.

"The Durban process has been marked by ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and that is not something that should be commemorated," said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, an advocacy group critical of the U.N.

Thursday's event, the U.N. website says, will consist of an opening ceremony at the level of heads of state and government who will be here anyway for the annual General Assembly meeting. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be among the speakers, his spokesman confirmed.

The day will include two round-table discussions and end with "a short and concise political declaration." It promises updates as the conference approaches.

A draft version of that resolution, posted on the website, mentions no country or region by name, confining itself to generally supporting anti-racism efforts around the world.

Many countries, especially African and Muslim ones, believe the meeting is necessary to underscore the problems they face, and the website says since 2001, "instances of xenophobia, racism and intolerance have almost certainly increased in frequency and severity."

But even though it goes unmentioned in the official statements, the Israel-Palestine issue casts a long shadow, especially this year, as the anniversary conference will coincide with a campaign by the Palestinians to seek full U.N. recognition, a step that could add to Israel's sense of isolation. Both Israel and the U.S. are opposed, saying a resumption of peace talks is preferable to an immediate recognition of statehood.

The U.N. maintains that confusion between the official gathering in 2001 and the NGO forum "fuels many of the misperceptions about anti-Israel sentiment in relation to the World Conference."

But the language at the official gathering — the one the U.S. and Israel walked out of — was harsh on the Jewish state. Yasser Arafat, the then Palestinian leader, described Israel as having "a supremacist mentality, a mentality of racial discrimination," while Cuban leader Fidel Castro accused it of perpetrating "genocide against the Palestinian people."

The final communique dropped condemnations of the "racist practices" of Israel and Zionism. And the conference itself quickly faded from public attention because four days later came the attacks of Sept. 11.

More controversy dogged "Durban II" — the 2009 follow-up gathering held in Geneva. The U.S. and at least seven other countries stayed away because of concerns Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would use it as a vehicle to bash Israel.

Ahmadinejad has suggested the Holocaust never happened and has called repeatedly for Israel's destruction.

All 23 European Union countries present walked out of the conference hall in protest, but later most returned to be among more than 100 nations that adopted a final declaration to combat racism and related forms of intolerance worldwide.

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Online:

http://www.un.org/en/ga/durbanmeeting2011/