Media coverage of Pres. Barack Obama’s decision to give a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Aug. 12, 2009 to Mary Robinson, who organized the UN conference on racism that took place in Durban, South Africa in 2001, has often been superficial or even non-existent.
Responsible journalists need to take an unflinching look at her part in organizing the infamous Durban conference and its impact on the prospects for peace in the Middle East. The conference proved to be a watershed event in the ongoing campaign to demonize the Jewish state in the Middle East. Many of the lies used to justify violence against Israelis during the Second Intifada were showcased at this conference, including the bogus story alleging Israel shot twelve-year-old Muhammad al-Dura.
When President Barack Obama issued a list of 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on July 30, 2009, it included Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland. In addition to serving as the first female president of Ireland, she served as former United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, holding this post from 1997 to 2002.
During her stint at the UN, Robinson laid the groundwork for the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which became the scene of one of the most notorious explosions of anti-Semitism in decades.
At this conference, which passed a resolution accusing Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing, Jews were denied the opportunity to serve on committees on the grounds that they could not be “objective” regarding issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Arab Lawyers Union distributed a book at this conference that superimposed a swastika over the Star of David. Protesters carried signs outside the conference that asked what would have happened if Hitler had won World War II. One benefit the sign reported was that “THERE WOULD BE NO ISRAEL AND NO PALESTINIAN’S BLOOD SHED.” Palestinian extremists at the conference chanted “We will redeem Palestine through blood and fire.”
In response to the vicious atmosphere at the conference — which she organized — Mary Robinson declared “I am a Jew” and condemned the anti-Semitism being expressed at the events; but by then it was too late and the damage had been done. The conference’s delegates passed a resolution accusing Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing at the behest of Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.
After the conference, Robinson was criticized by the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) for failing “to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track.”
In an essay titled “The Durban Debacle: An Insider’s View of the UN World Conference Against Racism,” Lantos wrote that a preliminary meeting, which was held in, of all places, Tehran in February 2001, indicated that the conference scheduled to take place at the end of August and early September 2001 was headed for trouble. Israelis were denied access to the conference by the Iranian regime, as were Kurds and adherents of the Bahai faith. Moreover, Australia and New Zealand, who supported Israel were excluded from participating in these meetings. According to Lantos, the UN leadership — which included Robinson — refused to challenge the regime’s decision to exclude these delegates.
Lantos described the plan of action that came out of this meeting in Tehran as a “declaration by the states present of their intention to use the [upcoming Durban conference] as a propaganda weapon attacking Israel.” Lantos reported that Robinson failed to confront this hostility but instead condoned it. He wrote:
At the end of the Tehran Meeting, Commissioner Robinson made no visible effort to confront the breakdown that had occurred in the global dialogue on race that she had done so much to nurture. In fact, in a baffling statement to the press after the conclusion of the conference, she congratulated the Tehran delegates on their degree of “consensus” and urged them to carry on in the fight against racism. She characterized the meeting as a productive dialogue between civilizations. When asked about the inflammatory rhetoric directed at Israel, she stated, “The situation in the Palestinian occupied territories was brought up at the meeting and it is reflected in the final declaration.” These comments represented a pivotal moment in the evolution of the WCAR. By appearing to condone the Asian conference’s efforts to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the agenda of the World Conference, she betrayed its intentions and emboldened those intent on using the conference for their own political purposes. From that moment the conference began to take a dangerous trajectory that became ever more difficult to correct.
The overall result was that the UN conference was hijacked by anti-Israel extremists who were able to incite contempt toward Israel on a global scale and to legitimize the ongoing violence against Israeli civilians that had erupted during the Second Intifada. Writing for NGO-Monitor, Gerald Steinberg reported in 2005 that the Durban Conference “provided the political foundation for a Palestinian onslaught already in progress that claimed 1,000 Israelis lives.” He continues:
The Durban speeches and resolutions largely ignored the issues for which this conference was ostensibly called, focusing instead on branding Israeli anti-terror responses as “war crimes” and “violations of international law.” The Israeli government was unprepared. The defeat was huge, as were the consequences.
The Durban conference crystallized the strategy of delegitimizing Israel as “an apartheid regime” through international isolation based on the South African model. This plan is driven by UN-based groups as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which exploit the funds, slogans and rhetoric of the human rights movement.
On this basis a series of political battles have been fought in the UN and in the media. These include the myth of the Jenin “massacre,” the separation barrier, the academic boycott, and, currently, the church-based anti-Israel divestment campaign.
Each of these fronts reflected the Durban strategy of labeling Israel as the new South Africa.
Clearly, Robinson had a role to play in the disaster that took place at Durban, but instead of taking an unflinching look at these issues, some of the media outlets that have covered the controversy have restricted their coverage to complaints from Jewish groups — namely AIPAC and the ADL — about her receiving the Medal of Freedom. In those quarters, the story has become one of Jewish influence and outrage and not about Robinson’s record as a public official.
This has become particularly obvious in the Irish Independent. An Aug. 2, 2009 article in this paper quotes Robinson accusing “certain elements” of the Jewish community in the U.S. of bullying the Obama Administration over its decision to give the award. The article does not address the issues motivating the complaints from the Jewish community.
To its credit, the Irish Examiner‘s coverage includes a first-paragraph reference to her role in the Durban conference in its first paragraph. Still, the Examiner still allows Robinson to get off easy by relaying, without challenge, the following:
[The criticism] does not completely surprise me. It is totally without foundation. I am extremely proud [of the conference]. It was the third attempt to have the conference and was the first to be successful. In the final document there was not one word of anti-semitism.
What Robinson, and the Irish Examiner fail to acknowledge, however, is that while final document did not include any anti-Semitism, the conference itself — which she organized — was the scene of great hostility toward Jews and toward Israel. By the time the conference was over, the text of the final document was almost irrelevant. Israel’s enemies had been given the propaganda victory they sought.
Coverage in the U.S. was not always better. The Associated Press, for example, limited its coverage of the controversy to a 6-paragraph brief that limited its exploration of criticism of Robinson to on vague sentence: “Some Jewish groups say Ireland’s first female president is biased against Israel.”
Journalist should dig deep, go past superficialities and fully cover Robinson’s role in the Durban debacle.