by Sari Hanafi
The role of international and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is felt in many ways and seen in many forums. But the interaction between international NGOs and NGOs is crucial for effective action, and that interaction often suffers from a north-south divide. One notable exception was the NGO action at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in August 2001, in which southern organizations, fueled by grassroots organizations, both set the agenda and dominated proceedings with some notable results for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Indeed, the NGOs Forum at the Durban conference 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 that of the northern and international NGOs.
Nevertheless, southern NGOs should not be euphoric; 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 discourse.
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 addressed the apartheid model of Israeli colonial politics. It is not surprising 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 negotiation 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.” In consequence, 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 and acts of genocide.”
The second development that emerged was, to my mind, a kind of irrational revenge taken by Palestinians against the Western media’s 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, while in particular cases such as the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, the United Nations General Assembly and the High Commissioner of Human Rights did speak of “acts of genocide.”
But the point 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, e.g., in Bosnia, whereas events in developing countries have usually been described by these same organizations in banal terminology. The declaration was quite rational and even revolutionary in that it used the words “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” in the Palestinian case in such an important document.
Separating Anti-Semitism from Anti-Israeli Policies
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 Palestinian and Arab delegates insisted on their sympathy for victims of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish sentiment. They argued that the session should separate Judaism as a religion 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 raporteur of the session on anti-Semitism, however, 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 the 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 had been held previously in Cairo, Geneva and Durban between the Arab caucus members. Most of these members, supported by most of the Palestinian human rights organizations, opposed the mention 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. 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 South are Heard
Although many believe the intifada had a major impact on the sympathy of world NGOs, I consider its role quite secondary. I think three other major factors were more important: 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.
The conference was unlike other world and international conferences, such as the Social Development Summit in Copenhagen or the World Development Network in Bonn. There, northern organizations monopolized the preparations and setting of the agenda, thus deciding who should talk, 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 host country.)
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 and Islamic organizations jointly organized a demonstration of 40,000 people, as reported by the South African newspaper Mercure, on the third day of the conference.
Marginalization of International Organizations
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, held 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. But when the chair of the meeting asked the participants if they agreed to 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 practical politics and the necessity of achieving a compromise with the Jewish caucus, despite its small number. The position of Human Rights Watch was clearer. Reed Brody, the organization’s Advocacy Director, declared that the use of "acts of genocide" to describe Israeli policies was not precise and that Amnesty was not justified in abstaining in the vote.
The third factor concerns the voice of the victim. Unlike other world conferences, participants were not only those accredited by the United Nations, but also grassroots voluntary organizations. At Durban, about 3,750 organizations participated, most of them from southern countries. These were represented in the 40,000 demonstrators on the streets of Durban that 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 the United Nations secretary general a memorandum of claims. From discussion with the participants, it was clear that this initiative came largely from the grassroots organizations and not from elitist ones. It is not anecdotal to say that only the Palestinian and Jewish caucus included members wearing ties. Most participants wore T-shirts inscribed with their cause.
Incontestably, this conference was a 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, something that was not reflected in the conference resolution, as 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.
There are other lessons to be drawn, however. Palestinian organizations should learn to show 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 (often referred to as Berbers) have yet to get the attention of Arab human rights organizations. It may be that the problem here is that the causes are juxtaposed rather than reinforcing thematic issues. Why, for example, is there no general anti-colonial theme that encompasses the Palestinian, Kurdish and Sahrawi issues? In any case, the Palestinian delegation did not participate in the thematic caucuses, resulting in them gaining very little influence. It would help them to adopt a more global and humanistic approach rather than be too local and parochial in their discourse.
Despite that criticism, one must say that the conference was good for Palestinian NGOs, indeed for all the southern organizations; one that emphasized their solidarity and the importance of mobilizing the grassroots.