I just landed in Geneva, where I will be spending the next week reporting from the UN Durban Review Conference. The confab is a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (which took place in Durban, South Africa). For most of our readers (okay, mostly for the Jews out there), "Durban" has become short-hand for the anti-Semetic and anti-Israel debacle that erupted there and compelled the American and Israeli delegations to storm out in protest.
Many Western countries have threatened to boycott next week's event (known as "Durban II") if it replicates the 2001 conference's rampant anti-Semitism and almost-exclusive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a distinct possibility, judging by early drafts of the statement being debated over the past few months. (The preparatory committee is chaired by Libya, with Iran and Cuba among the 19 vice-chairs.) Though some last-minute jockeying by Russian diplomats managed to expunge all anti-Semitic language and references to Israel in the document, it still affirms the outcomes of the first Durban conference and contains provisions about defamation of religion (which would violate many countries' definitions of free speech).
The U.S., Canada, Australia, Italy, and Israel have announced their intention to boycott, with many European countries waiting until the last minute to decide. Some groups are criticizing Obama's decision, saying that boycotting the event contradicts his renewed commitment to diplomacy. "Nations are watching your administration," Jesse Jackson said this week. "Reduced global participation would mark a significant setback." But Obama is holding strong. "Our red lines remain our red lines," said Obama NSC aide Samantha Power in a conference call with Jewish leaders this week in response to rumors that the Obama administration might attend at the last minute. "In order for us to participate in the negotiations, to sit behind the placard, to be involved in a frontal way, much more would need to be done."
I, however, jumped at the opportunity to cover next week's conference, getting back to my roots as a foreign correspondent after having spent the last year and a half behind a desk in D.C. But after reading up on the 2001 conference on my flight over here, I have to admit to being a bit nervous. According to this harrowing account from the 2001 event, Jewish activists were harassed, abused, physically intimidated, taunted, and followed throughout the week. Anyone who tried to object to the Israel hate-fest was booed off the stage with shouts of "Jew, Jew, Jew." The conference hall was overflowing with copies of "The Protocols of The Elders of Zion" and pamphlets featuring pictures of Jews with long hooked noses and evil smiles, their serpent fangs soaked in blood and their military uniforms decorated with swastikas. At the conference's only panel devoted to anti-Semetism, dozens of protesters stormed the tent, screaming, "You are all murderers! You have Palestinian blood on your hands!" Israeli flags were burned in front of the European Union of Jewish Students table, and Jewish activists were accosted by members of Hamas.
To be sure, there are already signs that this year's conference will be much tamer. There will be no separate World Youth Summit or NGO Forum, which were the epicenters of the most virulent anti-Semtic activity in 2001. Jewish groups are also much more prepared this year, with organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress sending large delegations and organizing rallies over the course of next week. Jewish groups will also be involved in a high-profile summit in Geneva the day before the conference with human rights activists from around the world, as well as a vigil for Holocaust Remembrance Day featuring Elie Weisel.
That said, if the major Western countries follow through with their boycott, the conference will lose many of the key moderating forces. So armed with my notebook, camera, and UN press card (not to mention a set of security guidelines from the Geneva Jewish community), I'll be jumping right into the fray, and hope to post daily dispatches right here on The Plank.