A moral victory in Durban
Published in Palestine Report, Sept. 12, 2001

Expert Report by Sari Hanafi, director of Shaml Palestinian Diaspora
and Refugee Centre

THE FORUM of non-governmental organizations or NGOs at the World
Conference Against Racism can be considered a turning point in the
history of the global human rights movement - not because of the
victory of one of the longest-suffering victims of colonialism, nor
because reparations for slavery were introduced on the international
agenda, but because the role of the southern states at this world event
eclipsed the usual center stage role of the northern and international

Still, the southern NGOs should not be euphoric, as their victory was
more moral than strategic. Its practical dividends are very limited and
rely upon the ability of the southern NGOs to follow up and widen their

Inserting new language
The importance of the final declaration adopted by the 3,750
organizations that met in Durban is that it established new language for
the victims beyond the legal-bureaucratic standard behind which
international NGOs have always hidden. Three developments were
prominent, the first of which addresses the apartheid model of Israeli
colonial politics. It is not striking that the South African organizations
strongly supported Palestinian claims, considering that representatives
of the Network of South African NGOs (SANGOCO) visited Palestine
during the Intifada and saw first-hand how the Oslo negotiations process
has created Bantustans out of the Palestinian territories.

The conference declared that “Israel is a racist, apartheid state in which
Israel’s brand of apartheid as a crime against humanity has been
characterized by separation and segregation, dispossession, restricted
land access, denationalization, ‘bantustanization’ and inhumane acts.”
Thus, the conference program of action called for the launching of an
international anti-Israel apartheid movement similar to that
implemented against South African apartheid, which established a global
solidarity campaign network of international civil society, United
Nations bodies and agencies and business communities and for the
ending of the conspiracy of silence among states, particularly the
European Union and the United States.

It also called upon “the international community to impose a policy of
complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state, as in the case
of South Africa, which means the imposition of mandatory and
comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links
(diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training)
between all states and Israel."

It asked that South Africa "take the lead in this policy of isolation,
bearing in mind its own historical success in countering the
undermining policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with its own past
Apartheid regime.” It also condemned those states supporting "the
Israeli Apartheid state and its perpetration of racist crimes against
humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide."

The second development that emerged was, in my mind, a kind of
irrational revenge taken by the Palestinians against the Western media
and international NGOs' half-hearted criticism of Israeli policies. The
declaration generalized the use of "acts of genocide" to refer to what
Palestinians, as well as the Kurds, have experienced in their colonial
conflicts. It is in general disputable whether Israeli policies can
described as such, although in particular cases such as the 1982
massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps the United
Nations General Assembly and the High Commissioner of Human
Rights spoke of "acts of genocide."

But what is important here is that the victims set out to alarm
international organizations that traditionally only use strong language
such as "war crime," "crime against humanity" and "genocide" when
Western countries or their interests are parties to the conflict (as in
Bosnia, for one). What has happened in developing countries, on the
other hand, has usually been described by these same organizations in
banal terminology. This declaration was quite rational and even
revolutionary in using the words "ethnic cleansing" and "crimes against
humanity" in the Palestinian case in such an important document.

The third development of the conference established a separation
between anti-Semitism on the one hand and anti-Zionism and anti-Israeli
policies on the other. The Palestinians and the Arab delegates insisted
on their sympathy for victims of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish
sentiment. They pointed out that the session should separate Judaism as
a confession from the political program of Zionism and Israeli policies,
so that it be evident that being anti-Israeli is not conflated into anti-
Jewish racism (just as being anti-apartheid is not conflated into anti-
white racism).

The reperteur of the session on anti-Semitism did not take this into
account and forced an article onto the draft declaration that considered
all critics of Israel as de-legitimizing the State of Israel and perpetrating
a form of anti-Semitism. But when the article was proposed by the
ecumenical caucus, 37 of the 39 caucuses - all except the Jewish caucus
and abstaining international NGOs caucus - voted to delete this item.

In this debate, the critics of Zionism as a national ideology were largely
absent. In fact, many discussions were held previously in Cairo and
Geneva and Durban between the Arab caucus members. Most of these
members, supported by most of the Palestinian human rights
organizations, opposed the mentioning of Zionism. Other organizations,
like the Arab Lawyers Union, were in favor. The compromise was that
the declaration mentioned the political practices of Zionism and not
Zionism as a national ideology and cultural and social thought.

An Arab participant did try to contest the declaration's usage of
"Holocaust" with capital "H" on the basis that the lower case "h" includes
all communities subjected to the genocidal policies of the Nazi
occupation of Europe, notably the Roma and Sinti communities, and to
underscore that the term ought not be used to refer to the genocide of
only one ethnic group excluding all others. However, the steering
committee did not accept this proposition.

It did accept the addition of a paragraph that attempted to highlight anti-
Arab sentiment and Islamophobia. The final declaration noted that: “the
Arabs as a Semitic people have also suffered from alternative forms of
anti-Semitism, manifesting itself as anti-Arab discrimination and for
those Arabs who are Muslim, also as Islamophobia.”

Voices of the victim and the south are heard
Although many believe that the Intifada had a major impact on the
sympathy of world NGOs, I consider its role to be quite secondary. I
think three other major factors played a hand: the role of the southern
organizations in setting the agenda of the conference, the
marginalization of international human rights organizations and finally,
the importance of the voice of victims at Durban.

Simply, this conference was not like other world and international
conferences such as the Social Development Summit in Copenhagen or
the World Development Network in Bonn. There, northern
organizations monopolized preparations and the setting of the agenda,
thus deciding who should talk and for how much time and when.
Subsequently, the southern voice was marginalized. (Even when
conferences have been held in a southern country, this hegemony has
not often differed. When the World Conference on Women was held in
Beijing in 1995, China was in isolation from the international scene and
took a low profile in the preparations, satisfied with its role as a host

This conference against racism was held in a highly symbolic country
that suffered tremendously under apartheid. SANGOCO played a major
role in preparing the conference and in the choice of the speakers and
the steering committee for the NGO Forum. Furthermore, SANGOCO
also organized jointly with Islamic organizations a demonstration of
40,000 people, as reported by the South African newspaper Mercure, on
the third day of the conference.

The second important factor in this conference's success was the
marginalization of international organizations like Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch. While they attempted to
influence the process behind the scenes, they were grouped into the
International NGOs Caucus, which had one voice just like any of the
other caucuses.

Inside this caucus there were different positions. In this respect, the
International Federation of Human Rights was more sensitive to the
claims of Palestinians than others. Amnesty International, on the other
hand, had a very curious position. Irene Khan, its General Secretary,
intervened in the last session to propose adding to the first paragraph of
the declaration the following sentences: “As NGOs, we are a diverse
group, representing different constituencies, with varied interests,
experiences and perspectives. But we are united in our goal to denounce
and combat racism and human rights violations, in whatever form and
wherever they occur. The contentious and complex nature of some of
the problems should not obscure the broad agreement within the NGO
community on a range of issues. A global anti-racist and human rights
network is slowly emerging, and no one can afford to ignore its voice.”
Her point was to say that there are different narratives from the victims
and that these narratives did not express a kind of consensus.

During her intervention the head of the Jewish Caucus gave her a paper,
which she was ready to read until the public protested. Finally, the chair
of the meeting asked the participants if they agreed with her proposal.
Only very few hands were raised.

In addition, the international organizations tried to convince some
Palestinian members of the NGO delegation to compromise on the
language of the declaration in the name of real politics and the necessity
of achieving a compromise with the Jewish caucus, despite its small
minority. On this, the position of Human Rights Watch was clearer.
Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of the organization, declared that the
use of the word "acts of genocide" to describe Israeli policies was not
precise and that Amnesty was not justified in abstaining in the vote.

The third factor of the moral victory concerns the voice of the victim.
Unlike other world conferences, participants were not only those
accredited by the United Nations, which are large NGOs and not
grassroots voluntary organizations. At Durban, about 3,750
organizations participated, most of them from southern countries. These
were represented in the 40,000 demonstrators in the streets of Durban
who included South African landless people, anti-privatization activists
and, above all, those against apartheid in Israel. The demonstration
closed by delivering to the South African president and General
Secretary of the United Nations a memorandum of claims. From
discussion with the participants, it was clear that this action came
largely from grassroots organizations and not from elitist ones. It is not
anecdotic to say that only the Palestinian and Jewish caucus had some
members who wore ties. Most participants bore T-shirts inscribed with
their cause.

Incontestably, this conference is the turning point in the history of the
global human rights movement. The shift is not between the classic
diplomatic actors and NGO actors, but towards actors who are victims
themselves. The victory is hence a moral victory, albeit one not
reflected in the conference resolution because international
organizations had already set out to marginalize the NGO declaration.
United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson even
initially refused to receive the declaration from the NGOs, describing it
as "rude."

For the future, the Palestinian organizations can learn from this event
that they should have more solidarity with other victims. For example,
very few Palestinians participated in the demonstrations and workshops
for the Dalits, Kurds and Romas. The cultural minorities and groups in
the Arab world such as the Amazigh people (referred to by others as
Berbers) have yet to get the attention of Arab human rights
organizations. The Palestinian delegation did not participate in the
thematic caucus, resulting in very little influence. It would help in the
future for them to be global and humanistic and not local and parochial
in their discourse.

Despite that criticism, one must say that this experience was a rich one
for all the southern organizations, one that emphasized their solidarity
and the importance of mobilizing the grassroots. -Published 12/9/01
©Palestine Report

NOTE: For more details about the comparison between the Durban
conference and other World conferences, see Hanafi and Taber,
"Donors, International NGOs and Local NGOs. The Emerging of the
Globalized Elite," Ramallah: Muwatin (2001).