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UN commemorates controversial Durban summit with no apparent mention of Israel

As dozens of counties join Israel-led boycott of event, United Nations pledges to up efforts to combat racism around the world, while steering clear of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a high-level meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22, 2021. (John Angelillo/Pool Photo via AP)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a high-level meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22, 2021. (John Angelillo/Pool Photo via AP)

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday commemorated a landmark but contentious 2001 anti-racism conference that was accused of being anti-Semitic over its attitude towards Israel.

Israel and dozens of other nations boycotted the 20th anniversary commemoration event of the contentious Durban Conference in South Africa, amid worries that it would also feature attacks on the Jewish state. However, reports from the event indicated that Israel was not mentioned.

The UN pledged to redouble efforts to combat racism around the world.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan lambasted “the radical antisemitism” of the 2001 Durban Conference in remarks at a competing, virtual meeting organized by a professor at Touro College in New York.

At least 32 nations skipped the assembly’s event on Wednesday, by Israel’s count.

The Foreign Ministry released a statement denouncing the conference as the commemoration began.

“The original Durban Conference, a UN-hosted event, became the worst international manifestation of antisemitism since WWII,” it said. “Inflammatory speeches, discriminatory texts and a pro-Hitler march that took place outside the halls were only part of the ugliness displayed in 2001.

“The ‘World Conference on Racism’ actually ended up encouraging it, including through the parallel NGO forum, which displayed caricatures of Jews with hooked noses and fangs dripping with blood, clutching money.”

“Twenty years later, some of the same organizations have waged a BDS campaign against the only democracy in the Middle East, but they have failed,” the ministry added, referring to the Israel boycott movement.

“The halls of the #UNGA are empty, and with good cause,” tweeted Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz along with a Foreign Ministry list of boycotting countries. “Honorable men and women will not dignify this antisemitic event with their presence.”

The United States still faults “the anti-Israel and antisemitic underpinnings of the Durban process and has longstanding freedom of expression concerns” with the results, UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said in a statement on Wednesday explaining her country’s decision not to participate in the anniversary meeting.

Thomas-Greenfield, who is African American, said that combating racism is a top priority for her and for the Biden administration. She said that the US would continue working on the issue in “more inclusive” settings, without detailing what she meant.

The US decision drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the nation’s most prominent rights groups.

The boycott “sends the wrong message to the global community regarding the US commitment to fight all forms of racism and racial injustice everywhere,” ACLU Human Rights Program director Jamil Dakwar said.

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters during a news conference, at United Nations headquarters. on March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The first Durban conference — held from August 31 to September 8, 2001, just days before the terror attacks of September 11 — was marked by deep divisions on the issues of antisemitism, colonialism and slavery.

The US and Israel walked out of the conference in protest at the tone of the meeting, including over plans to include in the final text condemnations of Zionism as a form of racism — a provision that was eventually dropped.

Looking back on the two decades since the conference in Durban, on Tuesday, the assembly adopted a resolution that acknowledged some progress but deplored what it called a rise in discrimination, violence and intolerance directed at people of African heritage and many other groups — from the Roma to refugees, the young to the old, people with disabilities to people who have been displaced.

“People of African descent, minority communities, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, displaced persons, and so many others — all continue to confront hatred, stigmatization, scapegoating, discrimination, and violence”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

“Xenophobia, misogyny, hateful conspiracies, white supremacy and Neo-Nazi ideologies are spreading – amplified in echo chambers of hate,” he added.

At a meeting focused on reparations and racial justice for people with African heritage, the assembly pointed to the effects of slavery, colonialism and genocide, and called for ensuring that people of African descent can seek “adequate reparation or satisfaction” through national institutions.

“Millions of the descendants of Africans who were sold into slavery remain trapped in lives of underdevelopment, disadvantage, discrimination and poverty,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told the gathering via video.

He urged the UN to take up the question of reparations for “one of the darkest periods in the history of humankind and a crime of unparalleled barbarity.”

President Felix Tshisekedi of Congo said that reparations, however they might be provided, should reflect not only historic wrongs, but also “the scars of racial inequality, subordination and discrimination, which were built under slavery, apartheid and colonialism.”

The assembly’s resolution also noted ills caused by religious prejudices, specifically including anti-Muslim, antisemitic and anti-Christian bias.

Jamaica, while joining Wednesday’s meeting, said that there weren’t sufficient calls for slavery reparations in a new political declaration that was being drafted.

Still, the event — coinciding with the assembly’s annual meeting of world leaders — spotlighted the cause of racial equality at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has underscored inequities, and as the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in the US has re-energized racial justice movements around the world.

The disparity in vaccine availability around the world “clearly does not demonstrate equality between the countries and peoples of this world,” Tshisekedi said. Only about 1 in 1,000 people in his country have gotten at least one shot.

He and others praised some developments since the 2001 conference, including some national-level legislative efforts and the assembly’s new Permanent Forum of People of African Descent, meant to promote their rights and inclusion.

But “we, as a global community, have not done enough to tackle the pervasiveness of racism, racial discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia,” said assembly President Abdulla Shahid, who is from the Maldives.

Catherine Labiran, the founder of The Praxis Project, addresses a high-level meeting to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)

The 2001 Durban conference aimed to usher in “a century of human rights,” one that would see “the eradication of racism… and the realization of genuine equality of opportunity and treatment for all individuals and peoples,” according to its declaration.

But work on the document was rocked by tensions over how to address the legacy of slavery, complaints from multiple groups who felt their cause was getting short shift, and a clash over Israel.

With Arab states keen to condemn the Jewish state over its conduct toward Palestinians, the draft declaration decried “racist practices of Zionism” and accused Israel of “practices of racial discrimination.”

After the American and Israeli walkout, the wording was changed to recognize the “plight” of the Palestinians, and the document was eventually adopted.

Calling the original Durban conference a highlight of her life, Suriname-born Dutch activist and former politician Barryl Biekman complained on Wednesday of a “structurally persistent negative campaign to defame and undermine” its declaration, called the DDPA for short.

“Without the DDPA, we would not have been as close as we are today in having a global platform position to recognize the unfulfilled rights of Africans and people of African descent, at the United Nations and in global society,” she said.

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