Leading International Voices on the 2001 Durban NGO Forum

With a Libyan-backed group of fringe organizations now lobbying the UN and the City of Geneva to help them hold a so-called “NGO forum” during the April 2009 Durban Review Conference (“Durban II”), it’s worth recalling why so many fear a repeat of the nightmare that was the 2001 NGO Forum.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson:

[T]he atmosphere of anti-Semitism at the NGO Forum was described as ‘hateful, even racist’ by former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Source: U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 1361 EH, Sept. 23, 2008

I had urged the NGOs not to adopt it. But the process was democratic and they went ahead and adopted it. But I also have a democratic right to reject that declaration dealing with Israel. . .  I think the NGO Forum, by including that text on Israel, have diminished the chances of it being adopted by the conference. I don’t think it can be adopted. Source: “Israel branded ‘racist’ by rights forum,” CNN, Sept. 2, 2001.

[A]fter [an activist] showed Robinson the booklet, she stood up, waved it and said, ‘This conference is aimed at achieving human dignity. My husband is a cartoonist, I love political cartoons, but when I see the racism in this cartoon booklet, of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, I must say that I am a Jew – for those victims are hurting. I know that you people will not understand easily, but you are my friends, so I tell you that I am a Jew, and I will not accept this fractiousness to torpedo the conference.’ Source: Robinson in Durban: I am a Jew,” The Jerusalem Post, Aug. 30, 2001.


South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad:

The South African government has condemned the anti-Semitism at the nongovernmental conference against racism held in Durban last August. Referring to the “disgraceful events,” Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad said the conference was hijacked and turned into an anti-Semitic event. Source: “South Africa decries anti-Semitism at Durban Racism Conference,” Human Rights Education Association, 2002.

Human Rights Watch:

Human Rights Watch. . . calls on all participants to avoid a repeat of the conduct that so marred the 2001 conference. In particular, the NGO forum at the Durban Conference undermined the wider process when the forum’s concluding statement singled out one country, Israel, as the target of exaggerated and unsupportable allegations and when certain forum participants made anti-Semitic statements and expressed anti-Semitic sentiments that targeted, among others, individuals participating in the conference. Source: Human Rights Watch, “Position Paper: Second Preparatory Committee for the Durban Review Conference,” April 21, 2008.

Amnesty International:

Amnesty International “joined Jewish and Israeli leaders in warning that a forthcoming UN conference against racism could degenerate into an assault on Israel, Zionism, and the significance of the Holocaust.” Regrettably, we were not able to head off the ugly incidents that in fact did take place. Source: Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast Regional Director, Amnesty International USA, Letter to Boston Jewish Advocate, Dec. 27, 2007.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

Vous avez parlé de la conférence de Durban. Je vais vous le dire : la conférence de Durban en 2001 a donné lieu à des débordements intolérables de la part de certains Etats et de nombreuses organisations non gouvernementales qui ont fait de cette conférence une tribune contre l’Etat d’Israël. Personne n’a oublié. Une conférence de suivi est prévue pour 2009. Monsieur le Président, vous m’avez interpellé. Je vous répondrai très franchement. La France n’acceptera pas que les dérives et les outrances de 2001 se répètent. Nos partenaires européens partagent les inquiétudes de la France. Celle-ci présidera l’Union européenne dans les derniers mois précédant la conférence de suivi. Je vous le dis, nous saurons nous désengager du processus si nos exigences légitimes ne sont pas prises en compte. J’estime que ma réponse est sans ambigüité.


You have spoken about the Durban conference. I will tell you: The Durban conference in 2001 led to intolerable excesses from certain states and numerous NGOs that turned the conference into a forum against Israel. No one has forgotten. A follow-up conference is planned for 2009. Mr. President [of the CRIF], you asked me a question. I will answer very frankly. France will not allow a repetition of the excesses and abuses of 2001. Our European partners share France’s concerns. France will chair the EU in the final months preceding the review conference.  I say to you:  if ever our legitimate demands are not taken into account, we will disengage from the process. I believe my response is without ambiguity. Source: Discours de Nicolas Sarkozy au diner annuel du crif le 13 fevrier 2008.

Canadian Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney:

[The Durban conference] turned into a bit of a circus for intolerance and bigotry, particularly but not exclusively directed at the Jewish people. . .  Hitler posters [were displayed] by NGOs that have been re-invited by the organizing committee now chaired by Libya. Source: “Canada pulls support for UN anti-racism conference,” CTV News, Jan. 23, 2008.

U.S. House of Representatives

[T]he NGO Forum produced a document called the ‘NGO Declaration’  that contained abusive language, branding Israel an ‘apartheid state’ that is guilty of ‘racist crimes against humanity’. . .  the atmosphere of anti-Semitism at the NGO Forum was described as ‘hateful, even racist’ by former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and as ‘disgraceful’ by Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, of South Africa, who also stated that parts of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism were ‘hijacked and used by some with an anti-Israeli agenda to turn it into an anti-Semitic event’…”  Source: U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 1361, Sept. 23, 2008

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay:

Seven years ago at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, the virulent anti-Semitic behaviour of a few non-governmental organizations on the sidelines of the Durban Conference overshadowed the critically important work of the Conference. Measures were taken to address this betrayal of the core principles of the Durban Conference, and the NGO document was not forwarded to the Conference.” Source: Address by Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Opening of the Durban 2nd Preparatory Committee, Oct. 6, 2008.

U.S. Representative Tom Lantos:

Another ring in the Durban circus was the NGO forum, taking place just outside the conference center. Although the NGO proceedings were intended to provide a platform for the wide range of civil society groups interested in the conference’s conciliatory mission, the forum quickly became stacked with Palestinian and fundamentalist Arab groups.

Each day, these groups organized anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic rallies around the meetings, attracting thousands. One flyer which was widely distributed showed a photograph of Hitler and the question “What if I had won?” The answer: “There would be NO Israel…” At a press conference held by Jewish NGO’s to discuss their concerns with the direction the conference was taking, an accredited NGO, the Arab Lawyers Union, distributed a booklet filled with anti-Semitic caricatures frighteningly like those seen in the Nazi hate literature printed in the 1930s. Jewish leaders and I who were in Durban were shocked at this blatant display of anti-Semitism.

For me, having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first hand, this was the most sickening and unabashed display of hate for Jews I had seen since the Nazi period. Source: “The Durban debacle: An insider’s view of the world conference against racism,” Fletcher World Forum, Winter Spring 2002, at 46. The late Tom Lantos was founder of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus and delegate to the 2001 Durban conference.

UN Expert Gay McDougall

I join with Congressman Lantos and other critics who rightly condemn the anti-Semitism that some groups brought to events and activities surrounding the Non-Governmental Forum (NGO Forum). In some places, there was an atmosphere of intimidation and hate against Jewish people. There were cartoons and posters that were hurtful and inappropriate. Additionally, the final NGO document contained language relating to Israel that was inflammatory. In fact, portions of the document proposed by the Jewish caucus were defeated in a process that was intimidating and undemocratic.” Source: “The world conference against racism: through a wider lens,” Fletcher World Forum, Summer/Fall 2002, at 136.  

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Delegate to NGO Forum Jerry V. Leaphart:

[T]he NGO Forum document contained language that was fairly criticized as anti-Semitic. Source: “The World Conference against Racism: What was really achieved?” Fletcher World Forum, Summer/Fall 2002, at 154.

Joint Coalition of 94 NGOs, including International League for Human Rights,
Human Rights First, ENAR – European Network Against Racism, UNITED for Intercultural Action – European network against nationalism, racism, fascism and in support of migrants and refugees, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (USA), SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (Russian Federation), Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (USA), ILGA-Europe, International Lesbian and Gay Association, CCDN – Celebrating Cultural Diversity Network (UK), CRARR – Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (Canada), Observatorio sobre Conflictos Etnicos en la Argentina – OSCEA, CAERS – The Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society, Citizens’ Watch (Russia), AFRICAN UNION Social organization of St. Petersburg (Russia), Asian American Justice Center, Freedom House (USA), Human Rights Without Frontiers International, Roma Virtual Network (RVN), The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (Kyrgyz Republic), Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly of Moldova, Defence for Children International (Czech section), Sisters of Mercy, Mercy Justice Office – SCP (Ireland), Physicians for Human Rights, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (Sweden), The Bahá’í International Community, The Canadian Helsinki Watch Group, Conectas Direitos Humanos (Brazil):

Many civil society representatives were disappointed, when the [2001 Durban] NGO process, which raised the profile of important contemporary racism problems and the historic wounds of slavery and discrimination, was discredited. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson spoke out against what she called the “hateful, even racist” antisemitic atmosphere that plagued the NGO forum. She refused to commend it to governments for their consideration. Leading international human rights organizations called some of the human rights language in the declaration inaccurate, inappropriate and even counterproductive. They regretted that progress on vital issues such as discrimination against Roma and caste discrimination was thereby diminished. Observers were shocked by violations of procedure in the preparatory and drafting processes, the racist treatment including violence, exclusion, and intimidation against Jewish participants, and the misuse of human rights terminology in the document related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of groups was silent or refused to speak out. In the years since, many have reflected that the result was a regrettable vacuum of moral leadership. Source: Civil society groups seek Durban Review that rejects hatred,” April 28, 2008

On the Durban Conference in General:

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell:

Today I have instructed our representatives at the World Conference Against Racism to return home. . . I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of ‘Zionism equals racism;’ or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world–Israel–for censure and abuse. Source: “World Conference against Racism,” U.S. Department of State, Sept. 3, 2001.

Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper

We have every reason to believe it [the 2009 Durban Review Conference] will be a repeat of Durban I. . . We will not be party to an anti-Semitic and anti-Western hatefest dressed up as an anti-racism conference. Source: PM calls UN conference an ‘anti-Western hatefest’“, National Post, Jun. 28, 2008.

UN Expert Gay McDougall

The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights Under Law, a coalition of more than 180 civil and human rights organizations in the United States, issued a press release on September 4, endorsed by all its members, that referred to the anti-Semitism in Durban as “repugnant and reprehensible” and noted, “We share the concerns of those who decry anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.” Other NGO’s offered press statements of their own condemning the hateful language aimed at Israel and Jewish groups in the final NGO document. In addition, some NGO participants resigned from the NGO International Steering Committee in protest and, ultimately, 77 NGOs from 37 countries rejected the NGO document the night it was finalized because of references to Israel as an apartheid state. Source: “The world conference against racism: through a wider lens,” Fletcher World Forum, Summer/Fall 2002, at 136.  Source: “The world conference against racism: through a wider lens,” Fletcher World Forum, Summer/Fall 2002, at 136.  

UN Watch