UN set to commemorate controversial Durban conference, with 31 states boycotting

Israeli envoy has hailed record number of countries set to shun Wednesday’s marking of 20th anniversary of anti-racism conference, after past antisemitism

The seats reserved for Israel's delegation sit empty at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2021 in New York (EDUARDO MUNOZ / POOL / AFP)
The seats reserved for Israel's delegation sit empty at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly on September 21, 2021 in New York (EDUARDO MUNOZ / POOL / AFP)

The United Nations General Assembly was set Wednesday to hold a commemoration event for the 20th anniversary of the controversial UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which was accused of veering into open antisemitism.

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.

At the 2009 conference, a speech by Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacking Israel sparked a temporary walkout by many European delegates.

A record 31 nations will boycott the commemorations over concerns that it will feature scenes similar to those seen in 2001, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said Friday — over double the number of countries that have done so in the past.

“In recent months I have worked for the world to understand that the Durban Conference was fundamentally rotten,” he said in a Monday tweet. “I’m glad many more understand this today.”

The United States, Canada, the UK, Australia and France are among some of the key nations set to boycott this year’s meeting.

Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan speaks at the UN in New York in January 2021. (Shahar Azran/ Israeli Mission to the UN)

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, however, has said just 20 countries are set to boycott the event. It has urged more countries to join them “in continuing to fight racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.”

Following the commemoration, heads of state will continue delivering their annual addresses in the vast General Assembly hall. Speakers include King Abdullah II of Jordan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than two dozen world leaders appeared in person Tuesday on the opening day of the General Assembly. The atmosphere was dire, with the COVID-19 and climate crises the top issues for heads of state and government, and with UN chief Antonio Guterres issuing a grim warning that “we are on the edge of an abyss.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is another one of at least 83 world leaders who plan on attending in person. Twenty-six leaders applied to speak remotely.

Bennett will address the gathering on Monday, September 27 and will speak about Israel’s national security and regional issues, according to his office. His remarks will likely focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its support for armed proxy groups.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett boards a plane heading for the United States, on August 24, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was known for making headlines with his speeches on the Iranian nuclear threat at the UN General Assembly, often using cardboard graphics and other props to get his point across.

In addition to the speeches by world leaders, the General Assembly usually also has hundreds of side events, but only a limited number are being held this year, mainly virtually or outside UN headquarters.

These include events on vaccines, on children as invisible victims of the coronavirus and conflict, on multilateralism and democracy, and on global hotspots including Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

A member of the FDNY passes outside the United Nations headquarters, September 21, 2021, during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, Pool)

Additionally, the UN Security Council will hold a high-level meeting Wednesday on climate and security.

Afghanistan and other major global challenges are expected to be on the agenda, including the lack of progress on the United States rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

There are also high-level meetings on energy and the nuclear test ban treaty, and a summit on the connected system of producing, processing, distributing and consuming food, which according to the UN contributes an estimated one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.

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