FLASHBACK: Then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, centre, with delegates during a break at the World Conference Against Racism at the International Conference Centre in Durban, South Africa, September 8 2001.
Bulgaria will not attend the session of the United Nations General Assembly marking the 10th anniversary of the Durban racism conference.
Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov said on September 9 2011 that Bulgaria's decision "stems from concerns related to clear indications that the trend of unbalanced criticism and interpretations of the problems of racism will be, unfortunately, present again at the high-level meeting".
"We confirm our commitment to the values and principles of equality and non-discrimination and the measures by the international community to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," Mladenov said.
The September 2001 UN conference in Durban, South Africa, descended into debacle as anti-Israel countries and groups sought to use the event - billed as a global conference on racism, xenophobia and all forms of intolerance - to condemn Zionism as racism. In parallel, there was controversy as some groups sought to use the conference to seek to put pressure on the United States and other Western countries to pay large sums in compensation for colonial-era slavery.
Deep disputes preceded the 2001 Durban conference because of a demand by the Arab bloc of the time that Zionism be equated with racism, in effect an attempt to resuscitate a 1970s General Assembly resolution, annulled in 1991, that made the same equation. There was also an attempt to use the word "holocausts" in reference to contexts other than the World War 2 genocide of six million Jews by Hitler's Nazi Germany regime. At the 2001 conference, there were vitriolic attacks on Israel by, among others, the representatives of Syria and Egypt, and continued insistence to keep the anti-Israel issue on the agenda and to seek to have sentiments along these lines included in the agenda led to a walkout by Canada, the United States and Israel.
At the close of the conference, after heated debate and a shuttle of diplomatic efforts, notably by then-UN Human Rights Commissioner, Ireland's former president Mary Robinson along with some EU diplomats and host country South Africa, a declaration was adopted that, among other things, contained an "expression of concern about the Palestinian people under foreign occupation and a recognition of the right to an independent state; recogition of the right to security for all countries, including Israel, and support for the peace process" and an "assertion that the Holocaust must never be forgotten".
The furore about the Durban conference was largely blotted out in the days after the conference by the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
A follow-up conference in 2009 also ended in debacle, with 10 countries refusing to participate, among them the US, Israel, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and five European countries. During that conference, a speech by Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during which he labelled Israel's government as racist and again denied the Holocaust, led to a walkout by about 40 delegates, among them those of the United Kingdom and France.
Mladenov said of the 2011 event, "we would like to express appreciation for the efforts by the co-facilitators during the period of negotiations to reach a balanced text of the political declaration to be adopted at the meeting".
Bulgaria becomes the 10th country, and sixth EU member state, to opt out of Durban 3.
The others so far are Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, and the United States.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) praised Bulgaria for withdrawing from the September 22 event.
"Bulgaria admirably has joined with other democratic nations skipping this lamentable gathering," AJC Executive Director David Harris said.
"We are delighted that Bulgaria fulfilled its pledge to not participate if the event indeed diverted from its original mission," he said.
"Those nations that have decided not to participate understand clearly that this UN initiative, originally conceived to contribute to the noble struggle against racism, had been hijacked at its inception ten years ago by those seeking to turn it into yet another forum for bashing Israel, Zionism and Jews," Harris said. "We know from our meetings that there are other democratic nations similarly considering withdrawing. We would encourage them to follow the principled example of Bulgaria and the other nine so far."
"The original gathering, in 2001, became best known for the toxic atmosphere of raw anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment expressed by some governments and NGOs," Harris said. "Is this a cause for commemoration 10 years later?"