Caucus of Arab NGOs make presence felt
- Al Ahram Weekly
26 July - 1 August 2001
First stop Durban
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
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
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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