THE World Conference Against Racism might have ended in acrimony and controversy, but it succeeded in focussing attention on the plight of Palestinians and the issue of racism worldwide. Although the majority view in Durban was sidelined by the unprincipled alliance of the West and Israel, most of the participants criticised Israel.
The External Affairs Ministry had tried to downplay the importance of the summit by sending to Durban a relatively low-profile delegation, headed by Omar Abdullah, the Minister of State for External Affairs. This was the case with most Western countries. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, which hosted the conference, regretted the absence of many world leaders in Durban. But African heads of state were present.
The Indian government seemed to have been preoccupied with ensuring that the viewpoint expressed by non-official delegates on caste-based discrimination did not find acceptance at the conference.
New Delhi's stance on the issue of Zionism and racism has perturbed observers of foreign policy. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was out of tune with most of the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on the issue. Before the official delegation left for Durban, New Delhi made it clear that it was against the Arab League's demand to equate Zionism with racism. In the past few years, India has emerged as one of Israel's staunchest allies in the Asian region, much to the chagrin of the Arab world.
Much of the world has recognised the fact that Palestinians are standing up to a brutal military occupation and that their basic human rights have been trampled upon. Of late, the Israeli government has upped the ante by specifically targeting Palestinian leaders, in acts reminiscent of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The history of Israel is marked by massacres of Palestinians - for instance, the massacres of Dier Yassin (1948), Qibya (1953), Sabra and Chatila (1982), and Hebron (1994). Ariel Sharon played an important part in the massacres in Qibya and Sabra and Chatila. Today, as Prime Minister, he presides over the use of helicopter gunships, F-16 fighters and tanks against a defenceless people. For Palestinians, it is difficult to differentiate between Zionism, racism and colonialism.
A declaration adopted in Durban by the NGO Forum, involving about 150 human rights groups from all over the world , accused Israel of "systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing". It described Israel as "a racist apartheid state characterised by separation and segregation".
In his electrifying address to the summit, Cuban President Fidel Castro demanded an "end to the ongoing genocide against the Palestinian people that is taking place when the world stares in amazement". He said that no country had the right to boycott the conference or to avoid a discussion of "the way we decide to rate the dreadful genocide perpetrated, at this very moment, against our Palestinian brothers by extreme right-wing leaders who, in alliance with the hegemonic superpower, pretend to act on behalf of another people which throughout almost two thousand years was the victim of the most fierce persecution, discrimination and injustice that history has known."
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that Israel could not let "the ultimate abomination" of the Holocaust be an excuse for not examining its own behaviour. He told the delegates that the world "cannot expect Palestinians to accept this as a reason why the wrongs done to them - displacement, occupation, blockade, extra-judicial killings - should be ignored, whatever labels one uses to describe them".
African-Americans who participated in the Durban conference criticised the United States' boycott of the conference alleging that the Bush administration has used the issue of Zionism as a pretext to avoid a discussion on the related issues of slavery, colonialism and payment of reparations. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Black American leader, went to the extent of saying that the American delegation had come to Durban with the express purpose of sabotaging the event. Some South African government officials concurred with this view, noting that the U.S. delegation left when discussion on the issues of slavery and reparation gained momentum.
Although the majority of the countries represented were in favour of equating Zionism with racism, there was room for compromise. In fact, the relevant paragraph of the Draft Resolution that was under consideration did not explicitly equate Zionism with racism but said that "foreign occupation founded on settlements is a new kind of apartheid, a crime against humanity".
The criticism of the walkout staged by the U.S. and Israeli delegations was symptomatic of the diplomatic isolation the two governments find themselves in today. U.S. commentators have described the Bush administration's decision as yet another example of its arbitrariness and disdain for international organisations and treaties.