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First stop Durban
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 07 - 2001

Arab NGOs finally met to prepare for Durban. But what exactly did the "Arab caucus" achieve, asks Amira Howeidy
The Middle East, a region marred by a 53-year-old conflict, was making preparations for the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenephobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa next month. It may well not have been, except for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), which had decided that no matter how behind Arab preparations were, an Arab "caucus" must take some sort of action towards forming an agenda.
So, from 19 to 22 July, the CIHRS hosted the "Arab Regional Preparatory Conference Against Racism" (ARCAR), in the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel. With a spectacular view of the Nile, participants representing 75 Arab, African, Asian and other international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), talked a lot about the agenda the region wants to promote in Durban. And with the 10- month long Intifada looming in the background it was perhaps inevitable that the plight of the Palestinians and Israel's history of "racist", "colonialist" and "apartheid" policies would dominate the four-day event. The discussions resulted in the third and last part of the 12-page Cairo Declaration, issued on Sunday, which will be taken to Durban.
Two parallel discussions will take place in the WCAR, opening on 31 August. One will be put together by governments and the other by NGOs. The Cairo conference president Bahiedin Hassan believes that the NGOs meeting in Durban will adopt the Cairo Declaration. His confidence stems from the stance of the Asian and African working groups which attended the ARCAR. And during the ARCAR, the South African NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) announced that it will send a fact-finding mission to the occupied Palestinian territories.
But the Arabs themselves seemed unclear as to what they wanted from Durban. The Cairo conference allowed for the discussion of several topics such as Islamophobia, racism in general, human trafficking and immigrants, but speakers from the podium and in coffee breaks focused on Israel's violation of international law and the rights of the Palestinian people.
Moreover, the conference's guest of honour was Luc Walleyn, a Belgian lawyer who was commissioned by the Arab European League, a Belgian NGO, to file a complaint with the Belgian judiciary demanding an investigation into the role of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and others in the 1982 massacre at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. It was then and there that Israeli-backed Christian Lebanese militias killed over 3,000 Palestinian civilians. Sharon, defence minister at the time, had masterminded the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
A press conference by Walleyn last Friday on the legal aspect of the case polarised attention once more around the notion of indicting an Israeli leader for war crimes and genocide. But as the discussion developed on the third and fourth days, the link between Zionism and racism, on the one hand, and Israel's policy against the Palestinians as a form of apartheid, on the other, seemed to reflect the dilemma of the participants' agenda. The speakers argued that by signing the 1993 Oslo agreement the Israelis institutionalised an apartheid- like situation in the Occupied Territories. However, they differed on the accuracy of comparing the miserable situation of the Palestinians to that of indigenous Africans.
Marwan Bichara, a Paris-based Palestinian researcher, told the Weekly, that "the Palestinian national position has been that we are proponents of a solution that brings about the departure of all settlers from territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on those territories, with East Jerusalem as the capital. Hence, we are still speaking of Israeli colonisation of the West Bank as a temporary situation, not as a permanent one as it was in South Africa during the time of apartheid."
Some argued that the conference should discuss other problems facing the region, with as much focus and time on them as on Israel's occupation of Palestine. Hani Megally, of Human Rights Watch, argued "it would be a big mistake to focus on Israel to the detriment of the rest of the region. Like any other region in the world we have our own problems that we should be looking at." Indeed, the issue of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, the Berber uprising in Algeria, ethnic and religious minorities, human rights violations, the problems of Asian labour in the Gulf, treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, sanctions against Iraq, women and gender and the question of freedoms in general are only part of the long list of challenges facing the region.
Indeed, the Cairo Declaration referred to many of these problems and carefully placed the Palestinian question at the very end, but it does not seem to have achieved any equilibrium between propelling the Durban conference -- or even the forthcoming preparatory conference in Geneva -- to take up the Palestinian plight on the agenda of governments and addressing other less politically sensitive issues related to the rest of the region. Bahieddin Hassan acknowledges this somehow, but argues that this is just the beginning of the formation of an Arab caucus which never existed before. "And Durban isn't our last stop," he said.
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Related links:
The Arab European League
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