Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Analyzing the Durban II Conference

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, International Law, Palestinians
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 96,


  • From 20-24 April 2009, the Durban Review Conference took place in Geneva. It is also known as Durban II, a follow-up to the infamous “Durban I” World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in the late summer of 2001. At Durban I, an NGO Forum accepted what can be summed up as a declaration of war against Israel. Participating nongovernmental organizations adopted a strategy for the complete isolation of Israel through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.
  • The Canadian Harper government was the first to announce in February 2008 that it would not participate in Durban II, followed nine months later by Israel. Other countries, including the United States, eventually followed suit in refusing to come to Geneva. The withdrawal accelerated when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his intention to participate. Many funders that had provided large amounts of money for the Durban I NGO Forum, including Canada and the Ford Foundation, did not provide NGO support for 2009.
  • Although the nonparticipation of so many key countries made Durban II less of a diplomatic disaster for Israel than Durban I, it did not result in any erasure or renouncement of the anti-Israeli “Durban strategy” adopted at the 2001 NGO Forum.
  • Many UN-sponsored mini-Durbans promoting the indictment of Israel continue to take place, led by the same NGOs active in the Durban I hate-fest. In the dominant narrative, Israel is the world’s worst violator of human rights and must be held accountable through investigations predetermined to find it guilty. Judge Richard Goldstone has become the patron saint of this “Durban process.”

“From 20-24 April 2009, the Durban Review Conference took place in Geneva. Also known as Durban II, it was a follow-up to the infamous World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa – also known as Durban I – in late August and early September 2001. Understanding what happened at Durban II requires an analysis of Durban I and its import.”[1]

Prof. Gerald Steinberg is the founder and president of NGO Monitor and a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. He specializes in Middle East diplomatic and security issues and in the political use of international and human rights law in the form of “soft power.”

He says: “The Durban I conference put the issue of the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, under the sponsorship of the UN, on the map. A very important event there was the NGO Forum, in which approximately 1,500 groups classified as nongovernmental organizations participated. This powerfully large anti-Israeli consortium illustrated how problematic the term ‘NGO’ is when linked to politics. Many North American and European governments actually provide millions of dollars to what are supposed to be nongovernmental organizations. This money, ostensibly meant to further particular development goals, or human rights, often supports highly politicized NGOs that contribute to conflict, and in some cases to incitement.

“Earlier in 2001, NGO officials participated in the preparatory conference in Teheran, where they developed the language for the strategy formalized at Durban I. This language includes terms such as ‘apartheid,’ ‘racist,’ and ‘genocide’ in relation to Israeli policies. Later, at Durban, the NGO Forum adopted a campaign for the international isolation of Israel through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.

“The Durban I NGO Forum can be summed up as a declaration of war against Israel. Estimates of the number of participants who met in a stadium in Durban varied between four and seven thousand. The fact that this gathering was held under the auspices of the UN conferred legitimacy on the Durban I process. Since then, the same organizations have been working to implement its program.”

HRW and Amnesty’s Roles

“In the weeks before Durban I, Kenneth Roth – head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is an NGO superpower – frequently explained to the media how important the conference would be. For instance, in an interview on U.S. National Public Radio on 14 August 2001, he commented about the pending controversy and the effort to focus attention on Israel: ‘Clearly Israeli racist practices are an appropriate topic.'[2] HRW sent a large delegation to the Durban NGO Forum, headed by its “advocacy director” and “special counsel” Reed Brody. HRW also had a hand in preventing dissenters from speaking out against the railroading of anti-Israeli resolutions.

“Following Durban I, Canadian law professor Anne Bayefsky published an article exposing HRW’s role.[3] I also wrote about this organization’s participation in the travesty of the Durban I NGO Forum.[4] HRW then issued a statement expressing displeasure at what had happened at the NGO Forum. The thinking behind such a curious move is essentially this: ‘You participate when it costs you nothing; when donors object, you pretend to dissociate yourself.’

“Amnesty International, another leading international NGO, circulated material at the forum citing examples of racism and human rights abuses around the world, but mentioned only Israel by name. Amnesty, like HRW, offered mild criticism of the results afterward, but concluded: ‘Although not accepting or condoning some of the language used within the NGO Declaration, Amnesty International accepts the declaration as a largely positive document which gives a voice to all the victims of racism wherever it occurs.'[5]

“After Durban I, HRW and Amnesty continued to be active in the process of demonizing Israel, although in the buildup to Durban II they were relatively quiet, having realized that they were being closely watched. They mainly tried to pressure governments – the United States and European countries – to participate. While acting as lobbyists, they stressed that the excesses of the 2001 conference would not be repeated. They wanted to make sure in advance that they would not be held responsible for NGO misconduct as had been the case in 2001.

“The objective of the Durban process is to use human rights and international law terminology to isolate, demonize, and delegitimize Israel. Implementation of this process manifests itself in various ways: the academic boycott campaigns in the UK; a variety of boycotts in Scandinavian countries; divestment in churches and in Norway; ‘lawfare’ cases brought against Israelis in various European countries. All these take their mandate from the 2001 NGO Forum at the Durban Conference and all work toward reinforcing its resolutions.”

The Durban I Diplomatic Conference

“Although the NGO Forum at Durban I was particularly problematic, the official diplomatic conference also reflected the centrality of the UN machinery in targeting Israel for demonization and isolation. In the diplomatic declaration, Israel was the only country singled out negatively.

“No other areas of violent conflicts – such as Darfur, Sri Lanka, or Chechnya – and human rights violations were mentioned or even on the agenda. Russia and China prevented any discussion of issues related to their conflicts.

“Due to the emphasis on the demonization of Israel, the real issues of racism were pushed aside. Groups such as the European Roma, the Dalits from India, Tibetans, victims of genocide in Rwanda and of the mass killings in Darfur, complained that the conference had been hijacked. That was a misnomer; ‘hijacked’ implies that the proceedings went against the desire of the organizers. Here, however, the UN had been a willing participant in this anti-Israeli process from the start. The Islamic bloc, led by Iran and Libya, and in cooperation with the NGO superpowers, were able to dominate these mechanisms in order to target Israel, while preventing any discussion of their own massive violations of human rights.”

Follow-up Conferences

Steinberg remarks: “According to common procedure, after a major UN international conference, smaller follow-up conferences are held annually, mainly in Geneva. Normally after five years a second major conference takes place to evaluate what has been accomplished and how to proceed further.

“Due to the controversy caused by the Durban I Conference, the first follow-up was delayed and took place after eight years. It was held in Geneva rather than in South Africa or Brazil as some people had suggested. The adherents of the Durban process intended to use the UN and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to advance the same agenda in Durban II, while giving it another wave of publicity and support aiming to reinforce and further the isolation of Israel. They also intended to have another NGO Forum in Geneva.

“The preparations for the Durban II conference were made by the UNHRC and various committees. Libya, Iran, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) initially pressed for an NGO Forum. They then realized that if they persevered they would lose the support of the Western nations. An all-Islamic political event, even if it took place under UN auspices, would not have legitimacy, and the Muslim countries also accepted the need to give the NGOs a lower profile.

“The UN therefore told the NGOs that they could not have a significant event inside the UN compound, but allowed them to hold an event before the conference. This small meeting was held on Friday night and Saturday on the outskirts of Geneva. It was largely ignored.”

Governments Withdraw

“The Canadian government was the first to announce that it would not participate in Durban II. It called on other countries to pull out as well. That was an extremely important shift, particularly as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Department of Foreign Affairs had enthusiastically supported and helped organize the catastrophic Durban I conference.

“In contrast, the Conservative Harper government, which took office in February 2006, sought to avoid this foreign policy disaster and viewed the UN far more realistically. Working on the basis of an all-party consensus, Canada led the international effort to undo some of the damage of Durban I.

“Canada’s decision to boycott Durban II was followed by Israel, the United States, Italy, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Poland. Denmark, Sweden, the UK, and France sent low-level delegations.”

The Withdrawal of Funders

“At least as important, many funders who had provided large amounts of money for the Durban I NGO Forum refused to make the same mistake twice. One of the first to change was the Ford Foundation. Press reports had revealed its funding for the most poisonous NGOs in the attacks against Israel and the antisemitic incidents at Durban I. Aside from the embarrassment this caused, some of the more perceptive members of the foundation’s board seem to have realized that they had wasted money on an unworthy project. They were concerned that funding another forum could further damage the Ford Foundation’s image.

“On this basis, Susan Beresford, then president of the foundation, wrote an official letter to New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler saying that the Ford Foundation would no longer promote this type of activity.[6] We at NGO Monitor closely tracked how the Ford Foundation implemented this new policy. Whenever our researchers saw that there was still money going to organizations that demonized Israel, we brought it to their attention. Today, the Ford Foundation has reduced this funding, although some Palestinian groups that abuse human rights rhetoric for propaganda, such as Al-Haq, are still on the recipient list.

“We have also brought our research to the attention of governments. In Ireland, the budget for NGO funding was reduced by 25 percent. And CIDA began to monitor the abusive use of development funds.

“The European Union and some of its member states failed to implement this kind of policy, but there was some tacit recognition that funding a second forum focusing on demonizing Israel could cause them damage. There was therefore no enthusiasm for a big NGO Forum among European aid agencies.”

Accusing Jews

“After the dramatic abuse of human rights laws against Israel at Durban I, efforts to prevent further onslaughts included the refusal or withdrawal of various potential participants. Several radicals seeking to use the UN for political warfare against Israel under the false claim of human rights violations propagated the idea of a Jewish conspiracy.[7] People such as Anne Bayefsky, Hillel Neuer of UN Watch, and myself were ‘implicated’ in this imaginary conspiracy, along with many others.

“Preparations for the follow-up to the Durban I diplomatic conference took place within the framework of UNHRC meetings. Undoing some of the damage of Durban I was of concern to both Israel and Jewish organizations. However, the Israeli position was somewhat confused, in part because during the preparatory period, both the prime ministerial and foreign ministerial posts changed hands.

“It was thus fortunate that Canada took the lead in February 2008, more than a year before Durban II, by declaring it would not participate in this conference in any way. It took Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni until November 2008 to announce that Israel was also not going to Geneva. To their credit, Israeli diplomats and officials worked very hard to prevent a repetition of Durban I. Their efforts concerned issues such as the NGO Forum and the text of the declaration to be agreed upon at Durban II.

“The Israeli aim was to prevent the singling out of Israel in the draft text for Durban II and, if possible, to try and roll back what had happened at Durban I. This meant that no country would be singled out and thus the final text of the Durban I Declaration could not be readopted.”

American Hesitations

“There were many meetings between Israeli and American officials. The Bush administration was clearly concerned about Durban II, but it did not want to decide whether the U.S. would attend the conference because it considered that a decision for the incoming Obama administration. Thus, after Obama’s January 2009 inauguration, there was renewed focus on what the Americans would do.

“At that time, only Canada and Israel had made their positions clear. The Obama administration, as one of its first foreign policy actions, sent two unofficial representatives – Felice Gaer and Betty King – to Geneva to participate in a preparatory meeting for Durban II and sound out the situation.

“The American representatives reported back that the Libyan chairman, the Iranians, and others were not willing to accept any compromise on the text. The Obama administration was under great pressure to go anyway, mainly from the anti-Israeli and radical leftists who had supported Obama in the presidential elections.

“The decision not to attend was apparently made by UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Samantha Power of the National Security Council, State Department officials, and Obama himself. In 2001, the U.S. had walked out of Durban I over the final proposed declaration, and the new administration did not want now to give recognition to a text that its Bush predecessor had considered as discriminatory against Israel.

“After lengthy internal discussions, attempts at negotiations, as well as hesitations, the Obama administration issued a statement on 27 February 2009 that it would not participate in Durban II.”[8]

European Positions

“In the meantime, there had been discussions in Italy on whether it should participate in Durban II. In the February 2009 meeting in London of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced that his country was considering staying out of Durban II. Shortly afterward, on 5 March, Italy did indeed pull out.

“Italy’s stance broke through the roadblock in the European Union, where member states prefer to take a common position, particularly in relation to Israel. After Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland also pulled out. However, the dominant position reiterated the illusion that EU members could go to Geneva and negotiate for a less offensive resolution with the Libyan chair and her Iranian counterparts. And so, twenty-three of the twenty-seven EU member states attended the opening session. This approach, typical for the EU, enabled them not to upset the Arabs and Muslims while giving the appearance of intending to moderate the tenor of the conference.

“However, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he would participate in the conference, the EU countries said that they would walk out during his speech if he used racist language against Israel or denied the Holocaust. And when he predictably did so, the Europeans walked out. The Czech Republic, then chair of the EU, withdrew its delegation entirely.

“As some pullouts of countries had occurred and others were looming, the text of the draft resolution was suddenly changed. About a week before the conference, under the pressure of UN professionals and Russian representative Youri Boychenko, new references to Israel were taken out. Yet the reaffirmation of the 2001 text remained. This was the red line for the Islamic group, and also for the U.S., although in the opposite direction.”

The Debate among Jewish NGOs

“Before Durban II, there was a lot of debate about how the Jewish NGOs should act. Some wanted to organize street demonstrations in the expectation that there would be busloads of Arab students or pro-Palestinian anti-Israeli demonstrators, but this did not materialize.

“The main response consisted of two counter-conferences just before Durban II, in which many non-Jewish personalities were also involved. The idea behind the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy and the Conference against Racism, Discrimination and Persecution was that if the United Nations was incapable of holding a serious conference on racism, then others should show them how to do so.

“At these conferences, victims of Rwandan genocide spoke eloquently. Iranians raised the issue not only of discrimination in Iran, but also of violence against the Baha’is, Jews, and others. There were also attendees who had survived the mass killings in Darfur. This discussion was far more reflective of the universal nature of human rights principles than was the official conference.

“As Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, coincided with one of the days of the conference, the Geneva Jewish community organized a procession in the plaza in front of the League of Nations building where the Durban Review Conference was taking place. A large number of delegates came out of the conference to show their solidarity.

“On another night, speakers at a pro-Israeli rally presented Israel as a country that promotes human rights and was a victim of the things the Durban I process accused it of doing. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz joined members of the European Union of Jewish Students when they tried to confront Ahmadinejad before his speech. Former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, and others participated in daily pro-Israeli or pro-human rights events outside the conference. All this created a very visible presence and made a strong impression on many journalists, delegates, and some of the NGO representatives. Inside, the formal Durban II proceedings focused on avoiding human rights issues and used Israel as a scapegoat, but the outside unofficial conference was the antithesis.

“As usual, there were a small number of fringe anti-Israeli Jews present. Some Neturei Karta members in their classical ‘Jewish’ garb apparently were brought in by an Iranian NGO. Naomi Klein, the Canada self-promoter who has made a major career of anti-Israeli radicalism, exemplifies this group; she expressed her sympathy with Durban participants frustrated ‘that the Zionism sentences [in the proposed declaration] were attracting all the media attention’ and charged that the potential for Israel-bashing was just an excuse for the U.S. to pull out of the conference.”[9]

Durban II and the Mini-Durbans

Steinberg posits: “Diplomatically, Durban II was better for Israel than Durban I, as a number of important countries didn’t participate. But these events did not erase or renounce the text adopted in 2001.

“Additionally, there is a long list of ‘mini-Durbans’ that continue to take place at various times. The UNHRC in Geneva holds these regularly, in addition to meetings of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, and gatherings that exploit claims to promote ‘the defense of children’ in order to target Israel. The same NGOs that led the hate campaign at Durban promote the indictment of Israel at these meetings. These include Israeli NGOs, many of them funded by the EU, various European governments, and the New Israel Fund.

“To cite just one example: most of the NGO submissions to the UN Committee against Torture’s May 2009 ‘review’ of Israel by NGOs (including the Israeli NGOs Adalah, B’Tselem, HaMoked, and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel) grossly distorted the humanitarian, human rights, and international legal dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”[10]

The Gaza Conflict

“The most common theme in 2009 at these mini-Durbans was the condemnation of Israel over the war in Gaza. This includes the false accusation of ‘collective punishment’ before the Gaza War and allegations of ‘war crimes’ during the operation. The Goldstone report collects these ‘testimonies,’ submissions, and claims in a single volume, and in this way Judge Richard Goldstone has become the patron saint of the Durban process.

“In this process, Israel is portrayed as the world’s worst violator of human rights, and therefore it must be held accountable through investigations predetermined to find it guilty. This will open the way for Israelis to be brought before the International Criminal Court or other frameworks. This process, in turn, will foster boycotts and sanctions against Israel, as well as divestment from related companies and projects.

“But over the longer term, the Goldstone report may actually have negative fallout for the mini-Durbans and the entire process of demonization. Several democracies, including the U.S., are also being accused of the same so-called war crimes for which Israel is targeted.”

Steinberg concludes: “It took eight years to have a first follow-up meeting to Durban I, and Durban II also did not help the UN’s image or produce any tangible results. The central role of countries such as Libya and Iran in this conference, and the participation of the radical NGOs, discredited the process from the beginning. It is doubtful whether there is any enthusiasm in the West or among serious UN officials for a third conference of the Durban type.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld


*     *     *



[1] See also: Alfred H. Moses, “From Durban 1 to Durban II: Preventing Poisonous Anti-Semitism,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 71, 1 August 2008; Gerald M. Steinberg, “Soft Powers Play Hardball: NGOs Wage War against Israel”, Israel Affairs, October 2006.

[2] Quoted by Anne Bayefsky, “Human Rights Watch Coverup,” Jerusalem Post, 13 April 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For example, Gerald M. Steinberg, “NGOs Make War on Israel,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2004.

[5] “World Conference against Racism Ends: Successes Must Not Be Overshadowed by Disputes,” press release, Amnesty International, 7 September 2001.

[6] Edwin Black, “Funding Hate: Ford Foundation Draws Scrutiny as Terrorism Rules Begin to Bite: Does Funding Trickle Down to Terrorists?” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 21 October 2003; NGO Monitor Reports: The Ford Foundation’s  NGO-Related Middle East Activities,  NGO Monitor Digest, 15 July  2003.

[7] Michael J. Jordan, “The Jewish Conspiracy against Durban II (No, Seriously),” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 28 April 2009; Naomi Klein, “Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks and the ‘Post-Racial’ Presidency,” Harper’s Magazine, September 2009.

[8] “U.S. Pulling Out of ‘Durban II’ Conference,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 27 February 2009.

[9] Klein, “Minority Death Match.”

[10] “HRW Plays Prominent Role at UN Mini-Durban Conference,” NGO Monitor report, 30 July 2009; “UN-NGO Collaboration: The Ongoing Demonization of Israel,” NGO Monitor report, 24 June 2009; “NGO Bias at the UN Committee against Torture Review of Israel,” NGO Monitor report, 5 May 2009.

*     *     *

Prof. Gerald Steinberg is the founder and executive director of NGO Monitor, and  professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University. He specializes in Middle East diplomatic and security issues and in “soft power” in the form of the political use of international law and human rights. His op-ed columns appear in periodicals including the Jerusalem Post, the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, and Embassy magazine. Recent publications include “Soft Powers Play Hardball: NGOs Wage War against Israel,” Israel Affairs (2006); “The UN, the ICJ and the Separation Barrier: War by Other Means,” Israel Law Review, 38:1-2 (2005), and “Realism, Politics and Culture in Middle East Arms Control Negotiations,” International Negotiation, 10 (2005).