No more messages of hate at Durban, please

By Henry Grunwald, October 8, 2008

It is vital to avoid a repeat of a conference which left an imprint of lasting venom 

The United Nations Durban Conference, held in 2001, globalised the discourse of contemporary antisemitism and anti-Zionism, turning the UN into an arena where Jews and Israelis were accused of apartheid, genocide and crimes against humanity. It was agreed at Durban that, 10 years on, there would be a review conference to address progress on its outcomes.

To prepare for that, the UK Jewish community established the Jewish Human Rights Coalition (UK), committed to human rights and to fighting racism - the original aims of the Durban process. Led by the Board of Deputies (of which I am president), it has held a series of talks with Government officials and ministers.
We, and many NGOs, believe that the Durban Review conference, to be held in 2009, represents a final opportunity for the UN Human Rights Council to avoid more venom aimed at Israel and the Jews.

At Durban 1, the UK Government delivered too little too late. It failed to grasp the consequences of what was happening, or to deal with some UK NGOs who played a role in the promotion of antisemitism at the conference. The USA and Israeli delegations withdrew once it became clear what was going to happen. By remaining, some European participants tried to dilute the final declaration, but too little was done by the Government to articulate that red lines had been crossed. It has become clear at recent meetings with the Government, that it was aware of the threats and sensitive to our concerns; and at present, we consider that UK and EU engagement may bear fruit. But there may come a time when further UK Government engagement in the Durban process becomes untenable.

The Government has accepted this view. In Parliament, Europe Minister Jim Murphy said it would play no part in a "conference that exhibits the degree of antisemitism that was disgracefully on view" at Durban 1.
Our approach differs from that of some other diaspora Jewish communities which have lobbied for early withdrawal: we recognise the long history of UK Jewish involvement with human rights, and note the recent growth of dynamic groups such as René Cassin and the Jewish Human Rights Network, which want human-rights issues to have a higher priority. We will, therefore, ensure the Government challenges the many outrages within the UNHRC. We are marking the red lines earlier and more forcefully than before Durban 1. If those lines are again crossed, we will be in a stronger position to urge our Government to stand by Jim Murphy's words.

The Durban review process provides a challenge to World Jewry, which has often been portrayed as concerned only with Israel and antisemitism. We must demonstrate that world Jewry can work effectively to meet such challenges. It is a global campaign, and our international organisations must put aside the rivalry that often blights communal life to deliver a real global approach. Recently, Israel hosted a meeting for international co-ordination on this. Many present could not conceive that a Jewish community might see a positive side in taking part. A youth-group delegate had to point out the huge numbers of young Jews around the world who want to engage, as Jews, with a genuine human-rights agenda. They will feel let down if their leaders do not try to make this happen.

The latest preparatory meetings were in Geneva. Full Jewish engagement was difficult because some sessions were over Pesach. JHRC-UK monitored the process and the initial signs were disturbing. Much of the meeting descended into chaos when the Iranian government sought to bar a Canadian Jewish NGO from participating, confirming that there are those still intent on reasserting the agenda of hate that blighted Durban 1.

UK Jewry is prepared. As the third preparatory committee gets under way this week, JHRC-UK representatives will be in Geneva to reach out to supportive UK and international NGOs, faith groups and supporters to create an environment where we can participate in the review conference in the tradition of Jewish support for human rights. If this fails, we will lead in ensuring that our Government exerts its full influence, directly and via the EU, to see that no respected democratic country is party to a flawed Durban process.

Henry Grunwald co-chair JHRC-UK /Ros Preston OBE, co-chair JHRC-UK

Last updated: 2:04pm, October 8 2008