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Israel branded 'racist' by rights forum

DURBAN, South Africa -- A human rights forum running parallel to the U.N. World Conference on Racism ended rancorously on Sunday with a declaration that branded Israel a "racist apartheid state" guilty of "war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing."

The declaration, adopted by a majority of the 3,000 delegates from 44 regions to the World Conference's Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) forum -- a broad-based summit of groups from around the world involved in human rights issues -- shocked Jewish participants, and many walked out of the meeting.

Some other international human rights groups who were part of the NGO forum, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, moved to distance themselves from the declaration.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expressed his government's anger.

CNN's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports on the conflict between Arabs and Jews at the racism conference (August 31)

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"It is an outburst of hate, of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism without any consideration," he told reporters in Tel Aviv.

Mary Robinson, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights and general-secretary of the U.N. Conference, said that the NGO statement's equation of Zionism with racism was regrettable and would almost certainly not become a part of the main conference's final statement.

"I had urged the NGOs not to adopt it. But the process was democratic and they went ahead and adopted it," she said. "But I also have a democratic right to reject that declaration dealing with Israel."

"I think the NGO Forum, by including that text on Israel, have diminished the chances of it being adopted by the conference. I don't think it can be adopted," she added.

Reed Brody, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "Israel has committed serious crimes against Palestinian people but it is simply not accurate to use the word genocide and to equate Zionism with racism ... it is now a matter of damage control."

Amnesty International also balked at the declaration.

"We are not ready to make the assertion that Israel is engaged in genocide," said Claudio Cordone, a spokesman for the London-based group.

The forum's document branded "Israel as a racist apartheid state," and called for the establishment of a U.N. committee to prosecute Israeli war crimes and the complete isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.

Jewish groups: Declaration incites hatred

The NGO declaration mirrored the struggles of the U.N. conference, where Robinson has worked to calm the brewing controversy over language condemning Israel.

The United States, Canada and Israel sent lower-level delegations to the U.N. conference in protest of what they see as anti-Israel sentiment at the summit. The United States has threatened to withdraw before the conference's September 7 end date if language it considers offensive is not removed.

The United States was "extremely unhappy" about the removal of clauses condemning anti-Semitism -- including the bombing of synagogues and armed attacks on Jews -- from the final draft of the NGO declaration, a U.S. official told Reuters news service.

But the Palestinians and other Arab groups were pleased with the NGO document.

"It's just the facts," said Shawqi Issa, spokesman for the Arab caucus at the forum. "This is what should be from the (non-governmental organizations). They are not like the governments. They are here to protect the victims of racism."

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, called the conference "very successful" and said that "it broke the silence of conspiracy of governments."

Jewish groups, however, said the NGO forum deck was stacked against them from the start.

"They've invalidated themselves," said Stacy Burdett, an associate director with the Anti-Defamation League. "A conference against racism has turned into a conference promoting racism."

And Alan Baker, Israel's legal adviser to the World Conference, said that NGO delegates "have only succeeded in turning the conference into a circus for Israeli bashing.

"It's inciting hatred," he said.

Another spokesman for the Israeli delegation to the U.N. conference told The Associated Press that he hoped delegates to that meeting would take note and understand that what happened at the NGO forum "should not happen at the U.N. conference."

"Hate is taking over," said Noam Katz. "It totally contradicts the aims of the World Conference against Racism, to fight racism and promote tolerance."

More to come at main conference

The NGO document has been presented to the United Nations to be incorporated into the World Conference's document when those delegates close their meeting on September 7.

Observers say the harsh anti-Israeli language in the non-governmental summit's final declaration has increased tension at the U.N. conference, attended by representatives of more than 150 governments.

Resolutions at non-governmental forums have no binding authority but observers say they increasingly influence the final declarations adopted at the U.N. governmental meetings.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned delegates at the main meeting on Saturday that rows over the Middle East and controversy over how to handle the historical issue of slavery threatened the conference.

Reparations to Africans for centuries of slavery remain a stumbling block for the World Conference delegates. African and Caribbean states want a formal apology, and divisions have emerged over whether reparations should be paid to descendants of slavery.

• United Nations
• World Conference Against Racism

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