Geneva: the inside story

By Leon Symons in Geneva, April 23, 2009
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Jewish sympathisers and demonstrators protest in front of the press room entrance during Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s press conference

Jewish sympathisers and demonstrators protest in front of the press room entrance during Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s press conference

The Serpent bar was where it all happened. In a vast room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Lake Geneva, the wheelers and dealers worked to reach accommodations during the Durban Review Conference hosted at the United Nations centre in the Swiss town this week.

People huddled around tables drinking coffee and talking about the events of the week, dominated of course by the speech of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday.

At one point, members of the Jewish Human Rights Coalition (the Jewish “caucus”, spearheaded by British Jewish leaders) were seen hunched around a table with British and African diplomats. Arguably the most bizarre tableau was two members of the Israel-hating Neturei Karta strictly Orthodox group consorting with various members of Arab and Muslim groups and wearing badges saying they were members of the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

The difference between Durban I, eight years ago, and this time, according to Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Jeremy Newmark, was that the governments decided what should go into the conference’s final document rather than the NGOs. In 2001 the NGOs held their own forum which dominated the proceedings and the final document. There was no NGO forum this time round.

“We have been very pleased with the final document,” said Mr Newmark. “Commemoration of the Holocaust is in there as well as antisemitism. All anti-Israeli references have been removed, as has defamation of religion. But this would not have happened without literally years of work and unprecedented co-operation by communal organisations.

“We learned al lot from Durban I and we have put that to good effect. That has been extended to the international stage and all the Jewish organisations which have been present have worked very well to present a united voice.”

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust and one of the three lead organisers with Mr Newmark and Community Security Trust chief executive Richard Benson, said the structure of the conference was different.

“In 2001 in Durban, I went as the only formal representative of British Jewry, representing the Board of Deputies. I didn’t know the NGOs before I went. This time, we have been working for two years to prepare, we have a proper delegation and much better cohesion,” she said.

“The environment was also different. Eight years ago it was hosted by South Africa; this time it has been inside the UN buildings, so there have been no demonstrations like there were then. The younger Jewish representatives have also played a very important role.”

On Wednesday, British UN permanent representative Peter Gooderham spoke out against President Ahmadinejad in his presentation, saying the British delegation left the hall “not only in protest, but in solidarity with those targeted by his hateful, anti-Semitic words”. Afterwards, Mr Gooderham made it clear why he and the other European countries, along with Morocco, Jordan and the Palestine Authority — who left for their own political reasons to do with Iranian backing of Hamas — left the hall and then returned.

“My government believed there were very important issues that were being discussed and we were not going to allow the conference to be derailed by one man,” he said.

What the final document says

The Durban final outcome document was adopted three days early.

In a surprise development, the delegates in Geneva for the United Nations-sponsored Durban Review Conference adopted the document on Tuesday by consensus.

It opens by reaffirming the 2001 Durban document, which was a sticking point for both the United States and Israeli governments to boycott the conference, as under the heading of “victims of racism,” the original document had noted “the plight of the Palestinian people” -- seen as implying Israeli racism.

While the current document does not mention either Israel or the Palestinians, paragraph 66 (out of 143) “recalls that the Holocaust must never be forgotten” and calls for countries to implement UN resolutions related to Holocaust commemoration.

Diplomats succeeded in trimming down the declaration to its essentials after the US and other western states objected to language that referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, appeared to limit free speech in relation to religion, and raised claims for restitution for slavery.

The final text, whose tenets are not enforceable on member states, reaffirmed the responsibility of governments to safeguard the rights of individuals against crimes perpetrated by racist or xenophobic individuals or groups or agents of the state.

The long road to Switzerland

● 2001: UN world racism conference, Durban I. Marked by anti-Israel street demonstrations by thousands of local Muslims and a stream of anti-Israel rhetoric while ignoring the spread of antisemitism.
● 2006: UN decides to hold Durban review conference in Geneva two years early in 2009, which becomes known as Durban II.
● 2007: UK Jewish community launches Jewish Human Rights Coalition, a task force to facilitate an informed and co-ordinated response to Durban II.
● 2008: JHRC attends sequence of preparatory meetings for Durban II. By the end of the year Canada and Israel have said they will not attend. America pulls out on eve of conference.
● Friday April 17: Foreign Secretary David Miliband meets Board of Deputies president Henry Grunwald, Holocaust Educational Trust chairman Lord Janner on the government’s final position.
● Durban II day one: British ambassador to the UN, Peter Gooderham leads European walkout during Iranian president’s speech questioning Holocaust and Israel’s right to exist.

Last updated: 3:58pm, May 1 2009