Sixty-four years ago, shortly after the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen Belsen, U.S. army doctors became concerned at the rapid death of hundreds of the freed inmates. Disease, extreme malnutrition and despair were all mooted as causes of the rash of sudden passings until an army doctor noted how the survivors were having difficulty excreting. Soon it was discovered that the survivor death toll was being caused by the inability of severely malnourished metabolisms to absorb the rich quantities of food and drink with which they were being plied by their well meaning liberators. The survivors’ bodies were simply incapable of coping with the overwhelming shock to their systems delivered by fatty foods such as chocolate and meat, that some had not consumed in years.
As we enter Holocaust Memorial Day this year it might pay us to remember how well-intentioned actions and beliefs can often lead to catastrophe. In a few days time thousands of human rights activists will descend on Geneva, in preparation for the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission’s Durban Review Conference. This Conference, designed to review the results of the September 2001 World Conference Against Racism,Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance is an effort to renew the focus on human rights around the world, but will almost certainly transform into a hate fest as virulently antisemitic as its predecessor.
The full impact on the concept of human rights of the previous conference was never entirely examined due to the shattering events of September 11, 2001 which followed six days later.
But if ever there is ‘a day that will live in infamy’, at least as far as the human rights community is concerned, then, September 5, 2001 must surely stand as the favored candidate. That is because while the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DPPA) made nebulous pro-forma statements about discrimination and prejudice around the world, it singled out only one country for reprimand – the State of Israel.
“Concerning the Middle East, the DDPA expresses concern about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation and recognizes the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the right to an independent state.”
This relatively tame language belied the actual ferocity of the attack on Israel at the conference and the antisemitic language which was allowed to air freely within the Conference’s workshops and plenary sessions.
But more devastating than this was the work of 3,000 NGOs, including most human rights group worldwide, who banded together in Durban to declare that Israel a “racist apartheid state” and guilty of “war crimes, acts of genocide, and ethnic cleansing.”
They were aided and supported by many ancillary activities.
On the grounds of the U.N. conference itself, the Arab Lawyers Union distributed pamphlets filled with grotesque caricatures of hook-nosed Jews, depicted as Nazis, spearing Palestinian children, dripping blood from their fangs and with missiles bulging from their eyes. Attempts to have the group’s U.N. accreditation revoked were rebuffed.
In a Palestinian-led march with thousands of participants, a placard was held aloft that read “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job.” Nearby, someone was selling the most notorious of anti-Jewish tracts, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
An Amnesty International press release, handed out during the NGO conference, cited several examples of racism and human rights abuses around the world, but mentioned only Israel by name.
While demonizing Israel, the Conference failed utterly to address rampant genocide and ethnic cleansing in the Sudan; the continuing slave trade in sub- Saharan Africa; the repressive Chinese occupation of Tibet; the eclipse of human rights in Cuba and the squelching of religious freedom and womens’ rights in almost every Arab country.
Although Israel and the United States packed up their bags and left the conference, the general world governmental response to this vicious monument to racism and xenophobia was general silence.
And that is perhaps what we can expect again as the Durban Review Conference gets underway. The new draft document of the Conference deals in the abstract platitudes as the previous one, affirming, inter alia, the conclusions of the former conference, while not mentioning one word about its poisonous antisemitic atmosphere.
But more troubling is the acceptance of a rabid anti-semite and inciter of genocide, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to address the conference on Monday, April 20. He follows in the footsteps of Fidel Castro in 2001 who used his platform to denounce the United States and the West as apartheid-sponsoring imperialists and of Israel as guilty of genocide. His address was met by a rousing one minute ovation. Ahmedinejad will almost certainly use the legitimacy of the meeting to broadcast his own brand of anti-Zionism and racism.
What we are left with is the question of how the democracies will respond to this presumptive assault on human rights. Will the United States and the European Union eventually refuse to attend, just as Canada decided some months ago? Will they decide to support the organized protests revolving around Durban and draw attention to the curious fact that while the Durban conference falls on the memorial day for the gravest assault on human rights in world history, absolutely no provision has been made in the program to recall that atrocity? Will they stand defiantly behind the very concept of human rights and refuse to have it manipulated and recast as a weapon to be wielded against Israel and the West in the hands of anti-semites?
The world has well learned the consequences of silence in the face of depravity. Sixty years ago, well intentioned men, determined to win a war against Nazism, neglected entirely the deeper danger to human survival represented by the Holocaust, in refusing to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Silence or willful blindness may lead our contemporary well intentioned men – who believe in the sanctity of human life and in basic human rights – to an awkward complicity in a 21st Century style assault on the very values they wish to preserve and protect.
The supreme irony that the very same genocidal atrocity that gave rise to the human rights culture, is somehow now being assigned to the people who were its victims and,in retribution, is being fomented against them – and at a conference that should be outlawing that very notion- should be lost on no one.