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The Shame of American Human Rights Activists at Durban I

John Fonte

Today, the United Nations will reaffirm the “Durban Declaration,” developed at the U.N. Conference Against Racism ten years ago in Durban, South Africa. The Durban conference became a forum for virulent anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. Israel was the only country in the world singled out for rebuke in the official U.N. declaration.

The venerable liberal Jewish American publication The Forward reported that the NGO Forum (the meeting at Durban of non-governmental human rights groups) featured “posters displaying Nazi icons and Jewish caricatures, anti-Israeli protest marches, organized jeering, incendiary leaflets and anti-Jewish cartoons, in addition to anti-American agitation.” A leader of the U.S. delegation, Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), declared: “For me, having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first hand, this was the most sickening hate for Jews I had seen since the Nazi period.”

The late Congressman Lantos was a well-respected liberal, a Holocaust survivor, and the founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. He was appalled by the activities of American human rights activists at Durban. In a retrospective essay, “The Durban Debacle,” Lantos wrote: “What is perhaps most disturbing about the NGO community’s actions [at Durban] is that many of America’s top human rights leaders ? Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, Michael Posner of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Gay [McDougall] of the International Human Rights Law group participated.”

Congressman Lantos found it “surprising how reluctant they [American NGOs] were to attack the anti-Semitic atmosphere.” He stated: “Shockingly, they did almost nothing to denounce the activities of the radicals in their midst.” Further, Reed Brody, a representative of Human Rights Watch, insisted that delegates from Jewish organizations could not participate in the decision of the caucus of international human rights groups on how to vote on the NGO declaration, because they would not be objective.

None of the other human rights organizations (including Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) objected to the exclusion of Jewish groups. Major American foundations (including Ford, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Mott) provided strong financial support to the activists at Durban.

The NGO Forum declaration went further than the official resolution and denounced Israel as an “apartheid state,” guilty of “acts of genocide” and “racist crimes against humanity.” The declaration called for “mandatory sanctions and embargoes” and the “complete and total isolation of Israel.” Incredibly, the American human rights groups decided not to vote. Why would American human rights leaders abstain in the face of such an outrageous declaration, whose clear objective was the delegitimization of Israel? To answer this one must examine the pre-history of Durban.

A year before the Durban conference in October 2000, forty-seven prominent American human rights activists sent a petition to U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson asking for U.N. assistance in combating racism in the United States. The petition declared that minorities in America “continue to face pervasive and persistent patterns of racial discrimination that threaten their livelihood, their liberty, and even their lives.” It called on the U.N. to investigate racial bias in the US and demanded that the United States remove all “restrictions” (including those that reaffirmed First Amendment free speech guarantees) to the U.N. convention against racial discrimination (which outlawed so-called “hate” speech).

Group spokesman Wade Henderson declared that the activists’ demands had been repeatedly raised with federal and state officials in the United States but to little effect. “In our frustration we now turn to the United Nations and have asked the high commissioner to aid us in holding the United States accountable for the intractable and persistent problems of discrimination that men and women of color face at the hands of the United States criminal justice system.”

In other words, what the activists were saying is that they tried, but failed, to enact their definition of human rights through the normal process of American democracy. But they didn’t like the results, so they are appealing to a U.N. process outside of American democracy.

It is no accident that the American NGOs appealed to the U.N. as the highest authority on human rights because their strategic goal at Durban was to establish “global norms” as superior to the laws of nation-states, including democracies like the U.S. and Israel. Human Rights Watch spokesman Brody stated that Durban “marked a step forward,” achieving “critical progress” in “repairing the legacy of slavery” (i.e., promoting reparations) and in antiracism “public awareness campaigns in schools.”

The human rights leaders belatedly offered only minor criticism of the anti-Semitic outrages. For example, Michael Posner declared that “there is much of value in this document” and “serious crimes have been committed” by Israel while calling some “language” of the Durban declaration “inaccurate.” (Posner is currently assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.) As Tom Lantos noted, one of the major lessons of Durban is that, when the chips are down, major American human rights groups (and their foundation sponsors) can not be counted upon to defend universal human rights or even common decency.  

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