WJC: Durban II chaired by human rights abusers

Amid more talks on acceptable draft text, concerns mount about repeat of 2001's Israel-bashing fest.

michael schneider 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
michael schneider 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amid continuing talk of finding a compromise that would open the door for the United States to attend the UN anti-racism conference in Geneva that opens on Monday, negotiations continued behind the scenes Thursday on the draft text for the week-long meeting. But even as diplomats squared off over language for an acceptable text, opponents of the conference, dubbed Durban II, argued that the event was tainted and could not be rescued because of the heavy involvement of human rights abusers such as Libya and Iran. Libya has chaired the planning committee, whose membership includes countries like Iran and Cuba. "It is a conference on human rights that is being chaired by people who abuse these rights," said Michael Schneider, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress. Among the high-ranking officials who will address the conference's opening session on Monday - which coincidentally falls on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day - is Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The non-governmental group UN Watch has noted that Saudi Arabia, which also has a problematic record on human rights, has contributed $150,000 to the event, China $20,000 and Iran $40,000. Russia, which has chaired the committee on the draft text, has donated $600,000. Some observers raised concerns as to who would preside over the conference itself, given that host-country Switzerland declined that role in the early planning stages. A UN spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post that Libya could not be elected president of the conference because it had chaired the planning committee - although, she noted, the committee would remain intact throughout the conference. Nor was it likely, she said, that the role would be given to Iran. The actual decision on a conference president is unlikely to be made until Monday, she said. Similarly, changes to the draft text could be made on that same day, or even throughout the conference, which is a follow-up to the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that met in Durban, South Africa. That text singled out Israel, which walked out along with the US to protest the event's virulent anti-Semitism. Israel, along with Canada and Italy, has said it has no intention of attending this time, either, because it fears a repeat of the 2001 event. Although the US has left the door open for the possibility of a compromise, this week it issued a clear position statement in which it said it would not participate in the conference as long as the text contained problematic clauses relating to free speech. It also objected to the opening paragraph of the text, which reaffirms the 2001 document that singled out Israel. Israeli Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Roni Leshno Yaar said he expected that a new draft text could be issued on Friday, although he did not know if it would go far enough to sway the US. Also at play is the question of whether the European Union countries will attend Durban II. Although they are expected to participate at the end of the day, France and the Netherlands have been vocal opponents of many elements of the text, particularly with respect to issues of defamation of religion. The Netherlands is also concerned about the absence of gay rights from the document. But Schneider said the ambiguous nature of the event itself was what worried him. "Anything can happen and anything can be changed, even at the last moment. Our major fear is that even if [problematic text] is removed, there is still a danger that a group of states will propose an amendment to the text from the floor during the conference," he said. That was why, he said, the World Jewish Congress had been urging the US not to attend. "My feeling is that people who want to harm Israel are playing a game," he said. "It seems as if the United States is caught between its foreign policy prerogatives and the anti-racism conference." Already in advance of Durban II, a two-day anti-Israel NGO conference, called "The Israel Review Conference," is scheduled to meet on Saturday and Sunday. An anti-Israel rally is also scheduled in Geneva for Saturday. To combat focus on Israeli wrongdoings and to show that there are many other human rights issues across the globe that need attention, a forum of dozens of NGOs has planned a Geneva summit on Sunday, in which they hope to highlight those other issues.