Durban II prep conference called a concern

UN Watch in the News

Jeff Rosen
The Canadian Jewish News
Sept. 18, 2008

A draft document circulating at the United Nations suggests human rights violators will get off the hook at the upcoming Durban II anti-racism conference in Geneva while Israel will again come in for special opprobrium, and the West – including its fundamental respect for free speech – will come under attack, said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch.

The discussion paper, titled the Preliminary Document of the African Regional Conference Preparatory to the Durban Review Conference, was crafted at a recent gathering in Abuja, Nigeria. The meeting was held to study Africans’ efforts at addressing racism while highlighting areas of continuing concern on the continent.

The document, however, referred to only one nation by name – the Palestinians – and only in the context of their suffering foreign occupation and a violation of their human rights. In the context of Durban II – the followup to the 2001 UN anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa –it suggests Israel is practising racism, which is a repeat of the old Zionism-is-racism accusation, Neuer said.

Neuer, who has been scathing in his critique of the UN’s Human Rights Council, said several serious situations in Africa were ignored, including atrocities in Darfur, “xenophobic” conflict in South Africa that killed dozens, and 1,000 people killed in Kenya “in inter-tribal massacres.”

At the United Nations, the “spin” about the Abuja meeting was that “it’s a big anti-racism review conference. It was nothing of the sort. Not a single human rights violation in Africa was mentioned, of which there are many,” Neuer said. Instead, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism were highlighted.

What’s more, a disturbing paragraph was inserted that threatened longstanding notions of free speech, he said.

The problematic clause is Paragraph 13, which “calls upon states to avoid inflexibly clinging to free speech in defiance of the sensitivities existing in a society and with absolute disregard for religious feelings.”

“It’s an intolerable dismissal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 for free speech,” Neuer said in a telephone interview from Geneva. “Free speech is a great value in any democracy. It’s not a pretext for anything.”

Paragraph 13 is part of a concerted effort “to impose anti-blasphemy restrictions, under the term ‘defamation of religion.’” He said there is no such concept in international law, but the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an umbrella group representing 56 Muslim countries, is in the middle of “a campaign against the liberal democratic concept of free speech and attempting to impose an Islamic standard for blasphemy.”

While UN resolutions can’t be enforced in western countries such as Canada, they can have a long-term impact on judges and human rights legal institutions, Neuer said, adding that Canada’s human rights commissions appear to have been affected by this line of thinking.

“Legal discourse is poisoned and corroded by these sham concepts. I think it’s deeply disturbing what’s happening in Canada,” he said. (One complaint launched by Canadian Muslims targeted the defunct Western Standard magazine for publishing Danish cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad.)

Two other developments at the UN Human Rights Council are also grounds for concern, Neuer added. The next pre-Durban II review conference will focus on Asia, and “Iran is a major player at that meeting.”

In addition, the debut speech to the UN Human Rights Council by Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was troubling, he said. Not only did it praise the Abuja conference but it criticized western democracies for either withdrawing from Durban II or for avoiding preparatory meetings.

“I do not believe that ‘all or nothing’ is the right approach to affirm one’s principles or to win an argument,” Pillay stated. “The process will certainly benefit from active participation by all states… Should differences be allowed to become pretexts for inaction, the hopes and aspirations of the many victims of intolerance would be dashed, perhaps irreparably.”

Neuer said that “the threat of no western participation is the best thing that ever happened to Durban II. Without that, there would be much worse things in the [Africa] document.”

He also took issue with a reference in [the UN press release about] Pillay’s speech that alleged the “conference process has been the subject of ferocious, and often distorted, criticism by certain lobby groups focused on single issues.”

“I’ve never seen such nasty language coming from the UN human rights office,” Neuer said. “It seemed quite malicious.

He added that the “depiction of unnamed lobby groups that criticize the Durban II process – groups focused on ‘single issues’ – was a thinly veiled reference to Jewish or Jewish-affiliated organizations. The statement was intended to conjure up xenophobic and stereotypical image of the ‘Jewish lobby,’ with its frightful allusion to shadowy organizations who level ‘distorted’ criticism, conduct themselves in a ‘ferocious’ manner, and who, rather than being committed to universal and shared principles, are selfishly ‘focused on single issues.’”

The statement “play[ed] on imagery reminiscent of that which circulated in Durban in 2001… and intended to discredit and delegitimize those who raise questions about the abuses in the Durban II process,” the letter stated.

UN Watch wrote to the High Commission asking that the statement be retracted.

Copyright 2008, The Canadian Jewish News
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