Issue 173: UN rights chief clarifies stance on Arab charter


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Responding to a UN Watch protest, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, in an unprecedented move,  has backed off from her earlier endorsement of an Arab text that includes provisions calling for the “elimination” of Zionism. News of the controversy was covered internationally, sparking a series of Canadian newspaper editorials critical of Ms. Arbour’s initial statement and her overall handling of the affair.

Following is a timeline of the events as they unfolded around the globe.

   Jan. 24, 2008, Geneva: High Commissioner Arbour issues an official statement: “I welcome the 7th ratification required to bring the Arab Charter on Human Rights into force… the Arab Charter on Human Rights is an important step forward [to] help strengthen the enjoyment of human rights.” At U.N. headquarters in New York, Marie Okabe, spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, highlights Arbour’s statement at the daily press briefing . When asked by a journalist, she does not have the text of the charter.

   Jan. 25, 2008, United Arab Emirates: The Arab world takes note of Arbour’s support for the Arab Charter, prominently featured in this article by the United Arab Emirates news agency.

   Jan. 28, 2008, Geneva: UN Watch is the first to speak out, exposing the hateful provisions in the Arab Charter, and requesting action from Arbour. UN Watch sends her a detailed letter:

  • “We trust that you were not aware of the blatantly anti-Semitic statements contained in the Arab Charter. We urge you to issue a clarification, and to hold accountable any members of your Office who were or should have been aware of, but failed to call your attention to, these racist provisions.”
  • “’Rejecting all forms of racism and Zionism, which constitute a violation of human rights and a threat to international peace and security,’ forms part of the opening preamble of the Arab Charter of Human Rights. Article 2 goes further and calls for the outright elimination of Zionism: ‘All forms of racism, Zionism and foreign occupation and domination constitute an impediment to human dignity and a major barrier to the exercise of the fundamental rights of peoples; all such practices must be condemned and efforts must be deployed for their elimination.’”
  • “As you know, Zionism is the movement for Jewish self-determination and asserts the inherent and internationally-recognized right of Israel to exist. A text that equates Zionism with racism, describes it as a threat to world peace, as an enemy of human rights and human dignity, and then urges its elimination, is blatantly anti-Semitic.”
  • “These provisions cannot be dismissed as harmless rhetoric. When Syria signed the Arab Charter in 2006, its state-controlled SANA news agency expressly cited these provisions.”
  • “This is a time when racism and anti-Semitism are raising profound concerns around the world. As you know, Canada announced that it will not participate in the upcoming Durban Review Conference, based on concerns that the preparatory process would fail to remedy the ‘open and divisive expressions of intolerance and anti-Semitism’ that characterized the original 2001 gathering. As Secretary-General of the Conference, with responsibility for its preparations, we trust that you will uphold the values of the UN Charter by acting immediately and forcefully to oppose any such language if and when it is introduced.”

In addition, UN Watch sends out a press release to the international media urging immediate action.

   Jan. 29, 2008, World: UN Watch’s exposé of the Arab Charter is published around the world, including in Canada’s National Post, Switzerland’s Le Temps, theJerusalem Post, the Montreal Gazette, and Argentina’s Agencia de Noticias Judia.

   Jan. 30, 2008, Geneva & New York:  Arbour issues a clarification. Now she asserts that various Arab Charter provisions are “incompatible” with international norms. The UN headquarters in New York issues a new release entitled “Arab rights charter deviates from international standards” — a complete reversal from the signal sent by the original Jan. 24 statement, “High Commissioner for Human Rights Welcomes Ratification Bringing Into Force Arab Charter on Human Rights.”

Arbour’s new statement:

  • “Throughout the development of the Arab Charter, my office shared concerns with the drafters about the incompatibility of some of its provisions with international norms and standards. These concerns included the approach to death penalty for children and the rights of women and non-citizens.”
  • “Moreover, to the extent that it equates Zionism with racism, we reiterated that the Arab Charter is not in conformity with General Assembly Resolution 46/86, which rejects that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination. OHCHR [the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] does not endorse these inconsistencies.”

   Feb. 1, 2008, Canada:  Newspaper editorials and letters throughout Arbour’s native Canada sharply criticize her original endorsement as well as her later clarification:

  • “In the space of about 72 hours this week, the one-time poster girl of Canada’s legal establishment — former war crimes prosecutor, and Supreme Court Justice — had first endorsed, then backed away from endorsing (sort of) the Arab Charter on Human Rights,” wrote George Jonas, a columnist with Canada’s National Post. “Within three days, our fearless crusader for human rights — oops, wrong word, sorry — lapsed back into a sort of, well, shall we say, benign Canadian neutrality about a ‘regional’ charter, or ‘human rights’ as seen by a culture that has been known to greet mass murder with celebratory ululation. We don’t endorse it holus-bolus, you know; we endorse it only up to a point. Not the bad bits, just the other ones.”
  • The Montreal Gazette editorial board concurred: “Her flip-flop this week on the new pan-Arab ‘human-rights charter’ — a watery document at best — was an embarrassment for a woman who is now the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This charter, which equates racism with Zionism and urges its signers to eliminate both, should have been quickly and firmly denounced as unacceptable.”
  • “It will not do,” wrote John Robson of the Ottawa Citizen, “to claim that Ms. Arbour is too naive to grasp the context. Especially since the new UN Human Rights Council was created in 2006 largely because the old Human Rights Commission was so anti-Semitic it had become a public relations problem instead of just a moral one. She knows what these governments say at the UN, and what they applaud.”
  • “Human rights are just that — rights for all humans, regardless of political ideology, ethnicity, religion or other category,” wrote the Calgary Herald. “That simple message seemed at first to be lost on Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, when she uttered her support for an Arab charter on human rights that states ‘efforts must be deployed for (the) elimination’ of Zionism. Those who attack ‘Zionism’ which is merely the right of Israel to exist, would be highly unlikely to attack ‘Americanism’ or ‘Canadianism,’ denying those countries the right to exist, in the same manner they deny Israel.”
  • In a separate column, the Herald’s Susan Martinuk added that “there was considerable expectation that Arbour was the one who would lead the UN to stand up to the world’s bullies … but now she has become more of the problem than the solution. [When] Arbour ‘clarified’ her position, she merely stated that the rejection of Zionism is contrary to a 1991 UN resolution. Not exactly reassuring. She shouldn’t get off the hook so easily. This isn’t the only instance in which Arbour has shown bad judgment and supported questionable documents.”
  • “As high commissioner,” wrote the Winnipeg Free Press, “Ms. Arbour does not hold an official Canadian position at the UN, but as a former Canadian Supreme Court justice she is inextricably linked with this country in the mind of the international community. Her about-face on the Arab charter spares Canada the continued embarrassment of her original position but cannot erase the image it at first enforced.”
  • And in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Brian Jones of The Telegram said that “We are long past the days when people could say, as many often did, ‘I’m not anti-Semitic. I’m just anti-Zionist.’ Even Amnesty International — no great friend of the Jewish state, ironically — expressed concern about the charter’s aim of ‘rejecting’ Zionism. It was one thing to reject Zionism in, say, 1890 or 1920 — i.e., to oppose the movement of Jews back to their ancestral homeland — but in 2008 the rejection of Zionism essentially entails denying the legitimacy of Israel as a state.”“Powerful people such as Arbour,” said Jones, “tread a dangerous path. At a time when the West should be unequivocally supporting Israel against its many enemies, they hem and haw and fudge and say, to all intents and purposes, ‘I’m not anti-Semitic, but …’ Just in case Arbour hasn’t noticed, the vast majority of violence in the world today can be traced to Islamic fundamentalists’ jihad against Zionism, or, to put it more clearly and bluntly, their hatred of Israel. Actions such as hers will merely help prolong and extend the violence.”