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Exercises in translation
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 09 - 2001

Will governments grant Arab NGOs more breathing space after Durban? Bahiyeddin Hassan* wonders
It took less than ten minutes to move between the NGO Forum and the official conference in Durban. The distance between the two declarations issued by the conference, on the other hand, was too wide to bridge. Their only common point, perhaps, was Israel's reaction.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres described the official conference's declaration as a defeat for the Arabs and a resounding success for Israel. One of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's advisers described it as the biggest setback for Arab diplomacy since June 1967.
The Israeli press attacked the NGO conference all the way, accusing Arab NGOs of hijacking its agenda. Ha'aretz wailed that Israel had been trampled underfoot; a member of the Knesset told Yediot Aharonot this was the most difficult situation Israel had faced since June 1967.
The distance between the two conferences is the distance between victory and defeat: a victory for Arab NGOs, a defeat for Arab governments. Durban was an opportunity to test whether Arab human rights NGOs could defend collective rights in the same way and according to the same standards they have applied to the defence of individual human rights in the Arab world. It also offered a chance to ascertain that Arab governments are incapable of protecting either.
Had the United Nations not decided to convene the third international conference against racism in South Africa, the human rights movement in the Arab world would have had to invent it -- at least, this was the feeling prevalent among observers who followed the preparatory meetings for the WCAR. The portrayal of Arab human rights organisations in the Arab media has been transformed; the elite, and perhaps some official circles as well, can never see these organisations in the same way again.
At the Arab Regional Preparatory Conference held from 19 to 22 July in Cairo, Ambassador Nahed El-Ashri, head of the NGO department at the Foreign Ministry, described human rights NGOs as "the military wing of the Arab nation in the fight against Israeli racism." The conference was convened upon the initiative of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). Sixty- five representatives of international organisations attended. Opening speeches by the Egyptian foreign minister and the secretary-general of the Arab League recognised the efforts of Arab NGOs and asserted official support for the demands Arab NGOs sought to impose on the WCAR agenda.
In the build-up to Durban, Arab NGOs had worked hard to counter American and Zionist opposition to any equation of Israel with racism. The NGOs' activism aroused considerable media interest, and many intellectuals praised the Cairo Declaration Against Racism (CDAR) adopted by the preparatory conference, especially with regard to its description of Israel as an apartheid regime and its call for the international community to eliminate that regime's legal and institutional foundations. The CDAR declared its categorical support for the rights of the Palestinian people to adopt all means of struggle necessary in ending Israel's settler occupation and racist policies.
This led to a major change in the way Arab human rights NGOs are perceived. For several years -- indeed, until a few months before the Cairo conference -- a media blackout was imposed on their activities. They were the target of relentless campaigns that accused them of imperialism, of serving as Zionist agents and proponents of normalisation with Israel. Human rights NGOs generally were portrayed as recipients of foreign funding, keen to tarnish Arab governments' reputation, and subject to the dictates of the West in general and the US in particular. Now, the Arab human rights movement is at the forefront of the fight against Zionism. Furthermore, it is confronting Zionism with the very sources of funding that were once criticised so sharply. What is going on?
When the United Nations convened the first and second world conferences against racism, most of the Arab NGOs that exist today had not yet been created. This is especially true of those NGOs that took responsibility for coordinating Arab efforts before and during the Durban conference.
In the 18 years that have passed since the second WCAR was convened, dozens of human rights NGOs have been born. Now every Arab country can boast at least one such organisation, even if it operates in exile. During the 1990s, local NGOs took up the defence of human rights in the Arab world -- once the exclusive province of international organisations. Local groups also became the main source of documentation on the mechanisms and patterns of human rights violations; they provided authoritative analyses of the cultural, political, and legislative frameworks that exacerbate such violations. They were now responsible, too, for presenting alternatives and limiting human rights violations.
Yet the capacity of the Arab human rights movement to coordinate internally, its effect on the international arena and its ability to formulate a collective vision of peoples' rights and the challenges facing them have been slow to coalesce, for reasons relating to the international, regional or local environment.
The First International Conference of the Human Rights Movement in the Arab World, organised in Casablanca by the CIHRS, may be one practical step in this direction. The conference generated a large Arab turnout (40 NGOs) and proved capable of elaborating a strategic intellectual vision of the tasks the human rights movement must face in the Arab world. This "brigade" possessed sufficient experience of struggle to open up, affect the world, and take action within the universal human rights movement. Its role evolved further at subsequent gatherings, culminating in the Fourth Conference of the Human Rights Movement and the Arab Regional Preparatory Conference Against Racism. The latter took a consistent moral position against racial discrimination worldwide, based on the Casablanca Declaration.
The Arab human rights movement endeavoured to construct international coalitions, thus placing Arab demands on NGO agendas worldwide. This is why the Cairo conference's position on Israeli apartheid and the Palestinian people's rights was adopted in the final draft of the NGO Forum Declaration.
For the first time in a universal document, Israeli apartheid has been revealed in all its horror, and described as what it is: a crime against humanity. The CDAR also stipulated the Palestinian people's absolute right to resist the settler occupation and apartheid by any means necessary. It recognised that war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing by Israel, as well as its denial of the refugees' right to return, constitute prominent features of apartheid; it demanded that the perpetrators of such crimes be tried before international tribunals.
In the face of such thorough preparation, American and Zionist threats and pressure to amend the final phrasing of the NGO Declaration -- by omission of all items denouncing Israel and supporting the Palestinian people -- did not stand a chance at the NGO Forum.
The core of the Arab human rights movement has perfected negotiating and coalition-building skills. It works with reality, not illusions; instead of insisting on their specific demands and denouncing other parties for not responding to them, Arab NGOs in Durban adopted a consistent moral position on racial discrimination everywhere. They realised that trying to turn the WCAR into a political demonstration against Zionism would be neither effective nor credible in the absence of such consistency on all the issues before the conference. Arab governments, and certain sectors of the Arab political elite, had difficulty grasping this point before it proved effective in South Africa.
Nor were Arab NGOs content with stating sound principles and then sitting back and waiting for results. A dynamic secretariat coordinated Arab efforts before and during the preparatory meetings for the WCAR, and played a decisive role in the results.
But will the successes scored by human rights NGOs in Durban help them face persistent challenges at home? The question remains open.
* The writer is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
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