"They are trying to intimidate us from speaking the truth," UN Watch's Neuer says.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
Pakistan accused UN watchdog groups on Monday of launching a "smear campaign" to discredit the upcoming 2009 UN anti-racism conference.
The vitriolic attacks against Jews and Israel that dominated the last such conference held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, had caused UN watchdog groups as well as officials from Israel and the US to express early concern about the 2009 follow up meeting, dubbed "Durban II." The watchdog groups have warned that the seeds of a repeat performance have already been sown.
But Pakistan's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Masood Khan, dismissed those fears as he addressed the opening session Monday of the week long pre-planning meeting held in Geneva.
"How to deal with the smear campaign against the Durban Review Conference," designed to discredit the past and future work on these issues is one of the challenges facing this week's meeting, Khan said.
"The PrepCom leadership and members should stay the course and not be distracted by negative propaganda," Khan said as he spoke to a gathering in which all 192 UN member countries have voting rights.
Israel and the US were present but have chosen to keep a low profile at this week's meeting out of fear that it would stray from its lofty goals of combating racism.
Hillel Neuer, executive-director of the Geneva-based UN Watch, told The Jerusalem Post he viewed Pakistan's statement as a direct attack.
"They are trying to intimidate us from speaking truth to power."
He added, "We will not be intimidated."
Neuer and representatives of other watchdog groups said that even on the first day of the pre-planning conference they were concerned by what they heard.
"It went from bad to worse," said Anne Bayefsky of the New York-based group Eye on the UN as she spoke with the Post about the day's events.
As expected, Libya was elected to chair the 20 country planning bureau for 2009, which includes Iran, in the opening meeting. Although the bureau had already met 19 times in the last two months in preparation for this week's event, its membership was only ratified on Monday.
In addition, Cuba was voted in as vice chair and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour is to be its secretary-general.
Neuer attacked the election results and said that "Choosing Libya and Iran to fight racism is like choosing Jack the Ripper to fight sexual harassment." He added that it was a setback "for the human rights movement as a whole."
Still, most of the speeches delivered by the bureau and other UN member countries focused in global terms on the need to combat racism, xenophobia and related intolerances and did not address anti-Semitism per se.
The conflict in the Middle East was mentioned a number of times, in statements by Pakistan and Egypt, but it was not the overwhelming focus of the meeting.
Speaking in the name of the Organization of Islamic Countries, Pakistan's Khan said, "The conference should move the spotlight on to the continued plight of the Palestinian people and non-recognition of their inalienable right to self determination."
Egypt noted that the violations which have arisen from the "the continued occupation of Palestine" have been condemned and examined by the international community.
Both countries, along with Iran, called attention to the new problems relating to the defamation of religion, particularly Islamophobia.
"Today the defamation of Islam and discrimination against Muslims represents the most conspicuous demonstration of contemporary racism and intolerance.
"In this regard the most disturbing phenomenon is the intellectual and ideological validation of Islamophobia," said Khan.
It is regrettable that the media has allowed this kind of defamation, Khan said.
Iran's Ambassador to the UN, S.M.K. Sajjadpour, said the prejudice extended to the "unlawful prohibition of visible signs of religion and culture in the schools" such as a prohibition on the head scarf which Muslim girls and women wear for religious reasons.
Members of all three countries also spoke of racial profiling and the prejudice that has arisen from the fight against terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack on the twin towers in New York.
This attack sowed tensions and instability across the world, said Egypt's representative.
"The aftermath of this tragic event saw a new and dangerous phenomenon in incitement to racial and religious hatred. An example in this regard were the highly defamatory cartoons published by a Danish newspaper in 2005 which deeply hurt over a billion Muslims around the world," the Egyptian representative said.
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