BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank - As the wreckage from Israel's recent siege on Gaza continues to smoulder, international civil society organisations are assembling this week in Switzerland to address Israel's crimes of military occupation and racism.
But any discussion on Israel's actions in Palestine will be excluded from the formal framework at the Durban Anti-Racism Review Conference in Geneva Monday. Israel-Palestine has been deliberately eliminated from the official programme, structured by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR). Civil society groups believe that the United States, countries within the European Union and Israel pressured the UN to omit a review of Israel's racial discrimination against Palestinians.
Hundreds of delegations from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights organisations will converge in Geneva for the Durban Review Conference on Racism. The conference is a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, that outlined an international legal and political concept to deal with global issues of race and human rights.
Immediately following that conference, the WCAR NGO forum recommended an international campaign of isolation towards Israel's institutionalised "brand of apartheid and other racist crimes against humanity."
The Durban Review Conference website states that the 2009 Geneva symposium is designed to "review progress and assess the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA)." Adopted by general consensus at the 2001 WCAR in Durban, "the DDPA is a comprehensive, action-oriented document that proposes concrete measures to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. It is holistic in its vision, addresses a wide range of issues, and contains far- reaching recommendations and practical measures."
In order to assess and review any progress made since the 2001 WCAR in Durban, Palestinian human rights organisations planned several side events that were to take place within the schedule of the conference.
However, two weeks ago, the UN High Commissioner's office unilaterally cancelled all side-events pertaining to Palestine issues. Ingrid Jarradat- Gassner, director of the BADIL Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights in Bethlehem, one of several Palestine-based organisations attending the Durban Review conference, tells IPS that BADIL and the other NGOs had organised a side-event specifically about how and why they see Israel as a "regime of institutionalised racial discrimination on both sides of the Green Line."
"As Palestinian NGOs and other NGOs working on the issue of Israel and its violations against the rights of the Palestinian people, we were expecting that there would be a possibility for us to organise these side-events during the official Durban review conference in Geneva," Jarradat-Gassner says. "We were informed by the UN itself that this would be possible."
Jarradat-Gassner says that on Apr. 3, less than three weeks before the Durban Review Conference, the UN High Commissioner's office called BADIL's representative in Geneva into a meeting at the UN, and verbally informed her that all side-events pertaining to the specific issue of Palestine and Israel had been banned.
"We were not even informed in any sort of direct of official way. In fact, we have no record of the decision of the UN not to let us work on such side- events," says Jarradat-Gassner.
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According to the UN's Durban Review Conference agenda, other side-events focusing on indigenous rights, women's rights and the link between racism and poverty will have an official platform.
Jarradat-Gassner says she knows there is a specific apprehension within the political UN body towards Palestine issues. In the draft document for the Durban Review Conference, she points out, there are particular recommendations for victims of HIV/AIDS, for victims of slave trade, Roma people, people of African descent, but, Jarradat-Gassner says, "there is not a single reference to Palestine, Palestinians or Israel in this whole document."
BADIL, Al-Haq (a Palestinian human rights organisation) and Adallah (the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) wrote a joint formal complaint to the UN OHCHR, but have not received any reply. The UN OHCHR did not respond to IPS's request for a comment either.
Dr. Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, tells IPS he had not known about the disallowance of side-events pertaining to Palestine/Israel by the UN's OHCHR. "One has to assume it was part of an effort to meet the objections of the United States that the event was discrediting to the extent it engaged in 'Israel-bashing'." However, Falk points out, "U.S. leverage is probably greater than it has been because Obama is President and Washington has indicated its intention to rejoin the Human Rights Council."
Palestinian organisations say that banning these side-events is a significant disappointment in pursuing Israel's legal responsibility towards its actions in Palestine. Dr. Falk echoes this sentiment. "I believe that the strong evidence of Israeli racism during the recent Gaza attacks makes it strange to refuse NGOs organising side-events to address the issue," he tells IPS. "Also, the collective punishment aspects of the occupation seem to qualify the Israeli policy as a form of racism, combined with the rise of the extreme right, with (Avigdor) Lieberman as (Israeli) foreign minister."
Jarradat-Gassner says that within the framework of the Durban Review Conference, the issue of Palestine and Israel should be prominent. "There is an obvious link between colonisation and apartheid (in Palestine-Israel). If you have a settler-colonial regime that comes here to stay, and codifies into law its relationship of domination over the indigenous population, you are entering the field of apartheid...We are talking about what Israel has been practising over the last 60 years in Palestine."
Meanwhile, anticipating a limited platform for debate and discussion on Israel's actions in Palestine, BADIL helped structure a separate symposium along with international Palestinian human rights and justice organisations and sponsored by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee.
Entitled the Israel Review Conference: United Against Apartheid, Colonialism and Occupation: Dignity & Justice for the Palestinian People, these Palestine- focused NGOs will have a platform to address international civil society two days before the Durban Review conference commences. Jaradat-Gassner tells IPS she hopes that the Israel Review Conference "succeeds to make mainstream the analysis of Israel as a regime of colonial apartheid that also uses military occupation. It's not easy to dismiss this sort of analysis."
Additionally, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration appears to have decided not to attend the Durban Review conference. In 2001, the United States representatives walked out of the first Durban conference when Zionism was defined as racism against Palestinians.
In the United States, progressive African-American organisations have expressed their disappointment and frustration that Obama has avoided the Durban Review conference. Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the U.S. Human Rights Network in Atlanta, Georgia, tells IPS that his organisation "takes the position that the Obama administration should participate and be willing to discuss all of the issues that will be addressed during the review process...A strong stand on this issue by the first African-American President of the United States would have a revolutionary impact on the global discourse on race."